Not with a bang but with a whisper

Image of Nigel Andrews

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi)
Che Part Two (Steven Soderbergh)

The fanciful warrant of an actor’s talent has long been his ability to read the telephone book: a great actor will sound it forth like Sophocles or Shakespeare. By that measure Clint Eastwood is now up there with Garrick, Bernhardt and Olivier. In early scenes of the deliriously enjoyable Gran Torino – a clever, immaculately structured, wryly raw comedy-drama about racism, gang war and redemption – Eastwood has little to do but alternate between pronouncing names and calling them. He apostrophises people first, insults them soon after (or vice versa), in an ageing widower’s one-man campaign to resist détente with his family, his Catholic priest and, above all, his Hmong neighbours.

This tribal diaspora from south-east Asia – the Hmong from Laos, Cambodia and other countries won refugee status after fighting alongside the US in the Vietnam war – is now encircling Eastwood’s house. The Korean War veteran’s brick-and-wood homestead, with his vintage Gran Torino nestling proudly in the garage, stands out amid untended clapboard neighbours noisy with extended-family conviviality and incomprehensible tongues.

Cranky old Clint, who has an unnamed life-threatening disease (presumably cancer), is troubled of lung and toxic of tongue. When the neighbours come too close, he goes “Nngghhh”, a low noise like a teeth-baring mutt. If he has to address them, he calls them “Ding Dong” or “Charlie Chan”. When they invite him to a barbecue he refuses, adding: “And keep your hands off my dog.” Finally he takes a small shine to the next-door son Thao (Bee Vang), only because a greater xenophobia – aversion to the Asian street gangs trying to recruit the boy – conquers a lesser.

Walt Kowalski is Dirty Harry gone mangy, even rabid. But Harry’s saving gracelessness was his ability to shut people up who needed shutting up. We know Walt will do the same: the twist in Nick Schenk’s debut script is how. Gran Torino has a startling end, ingeniously giving each spectator the different satisfaction he might want. He can hiss the baddies. He can giggle at racist abuse (disapprovingly, of course). He can even cheer as another Clint hero reaches for another gun whose magnitude is surplus to purpose. But finally his smile is wiped, leaving a deeper, interior grin that combines satisfaction with a pinch of stupefaction.

What is there left to say about Eastwood the actor? In his first role since Million Dollar Baby, and after threats to retire, he is more hypnotic than ever. A geological history as complex as Vesuvius seems to lie beneath those cracked, striated features, with their smoke-puff of white hair and the pyroclastic glimmer of their eyes.

The voice is a sandpaper rasp, barely now even a whisper, but he knows how to make words scald or sting. He can put the “bitch” into “obituary” (even when it isn’t there); he can leave plainspoken wisdoms dinning in our heads as if they were scripted by Tolstoy. Someone says, of Walt’s Korean war traumas, that it’s terrible what men are ordered to do. Eastwood, summing up his character and hinting at his hero’s back story, replies with perfect pace and aim: “The thing that haunts a man most is what he isn’t ordered to do.” Game, set and match. We barely see the ball pass us before it hits the baseline, but Gran Torino has proved itself another effortless Eastwood Grand Slam victory.

What a week. Anvil! The Story of Anvil shows there is life too, improbable as it seems at this late stage, in the rockumentary. Since specimens of this genre are always measured against This Is Spinal Tap, the apogee of berserk inspiration, Anvil! has a head start. First, the eponymous Canadian band’s drummer is called Robb Reiner, namesake (barring an extra B) of TIST’s director. Secondly there is a climactic visit to Stonehenge, whose onstage recreation provided the earlier film with its hysterical coup de grâce.

Anvil! is funny and tragic in the same winded breath. For Reiner and vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow, two fiftysomethings trying to recover the artistic puff that made Anvil apparently an early heavy-metal legend (but don’t ask me, a rocknoramus), life is a non-stop blow to the solar plexus. They cannot get a gig. When they do, it is a sequence of catastrophes fancifully called a European tour (playing to three men in a Bierkeller or 100 in a stadium seating thousands). Back home the wives are getting restless and the rent must be paid.

Kudlow tries to pinpoint the problem: “Our albums have sounded like crap.” So they cobble a new album with a top British sound engineer. Unfortunately, and typically, they give it the propitious title “This Is Thirteen” and it dives into the gutter.

Bitterly funny, uproariously sad, irresistibly human, Anvil! has a natural star in “Lips”. He could be a Viking stand-up comic: the long off-blond hair, the pop-eyed stare of innocence, the whirlwind riffs about nothing and everything. Reiner, his pal since school and the band’s only other unchanged member, sits in the teeth of the hurricane. Sometimes
the two men quarrel. Whenever they do, they make up again with tears and hugs.

Sometimes the viewer is awash too, his tears directed first one way (compassion), then another (mirth), as if by unseen windscreen wipers. How can humankind bear this much failure? When the finest ensemble moment a band can muster is a turn at the “Welcome to Transylvania” festival in Romania; when the most precious individual escape Reiner can find is painting stricken Edward Hopperish canvases in which urban streets are blown by nightmare emptiness; when…

Please, director Sacha Gervasi, we finally beg, give the guys a break. And he does. They get to play to a packed house, albeit in the 11.30am slot, in a Japanese super-thrash. We hear the cheers. We see the enthusiasm. We understand what might have been and might even still be. But we won’t be placing any bets.

Che Part Two is Steven Soderbergh’s second heave up the slopes of Mount Guevara, following the guerrilla hero on his last mission in Bolivia. Trying to pump revolution into the heart of Latin America, Che fell foul of fate, chased into a corner of the jungle where history decided to arrest, in every sense, the legend. The man himself was seized and executed. The perpetuum mobile of his charisma was halted – frozen in mid-grace – so that students could gaze at him forever on their bedsit walls.

This film is stronger than the first. The pale, sepulchral tones give a ritualistic eeriness to the long pursuit scenes. Hunted like a dog – and Benicio del Toro’s shaggy features suggest a mutt harried out of heaven or harrowed up from hell – he dies like a god. The executioner, forbidden to despoil the Christly features, is told to shoot below the neck. The features remain, perfect and unimpaired, for posterity and the poster industry.

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