Two of the holiday season's most prestigious, Oscar-baiting movies seem informed by the resentment of aging and mortality summed up in Dylan Thomas' poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays a Korean War vet who rages against the dying of the light with bigotry and the occasional firearm. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button turns our expectations for youth and senescence upside down through Brad Pitt's age-regressing hero. But will he go gentle into that good, uh, morning?
The discrepancy between Benjamin Button's outward age and his real maturity offers an intriguing if limited metaphor for the way people's failing bodies don't match their ageless spirits. Benjamin Button director David Fincher also proves that state-of-the-art special effects can apparently do anything. Button offers astonishing images of Pitt as a child-sized senior citizen who gets taller and healthier every year. Gran Torino, on the other hand, proves thoroughly old fashioned in ways both good and ill, and only succeeds thanks to Eastwood's undimmed star power. The film, like Eastwood's character, resembles the kind of crotchety old timer with so much piss and vinegar, you make excuses for his bad manners.
Benjamin Button sprawls across a century of American history, beginning with the title character's birth as an infant crippled with the ailments of an octogenarian. His horrified father leaves him on the stoop of a New Orleans rest home at the end of World War I. Benjamin grows up surrounded by elderly people and simply assumes he's one of them. As a wizened teenager, he finds work, love and adventure on a Louisiana tugboat, in wintry Russia and in combat in the Pacific during WWII. An extended vignette with a diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton) comes closest to the cosmopolitan melancholy of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the original short story.
Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth adapted the screenplay and gives it numerous similarities to the Tom Hanks vehicle, particularly through Benjamin's lifelong love for an inconstant woman, a dancer named Daisy (Cate Blanchett). In contrast to Forrest, Benjamin proves neither saintly nor innocent. He makes some irresponsible choices and gets to live out the dream of middle-aged men everywhere by having both experience and the looks of a young Brad Pitt.
The director of Seven and Fight Club, Fincher affirms his reputation as one of cinema's most obsessive stylists. He gives Button such a lived-in look that a sense of decay permeates even some of the loveliest moments. Fincher also relies on a ponderous framing device that crosscuts to a seemingly endless deathbed scene. For all the film's potent visuals, some of Button's ideas don't have the stamina to last its running time of well over two and a half hours.
Gran Torino's ideas amount to little more than "Grumpy old men sure don't like these kids today." As retired autoworker and decorated Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, Eastwood fixes his face in a permanent scowl as he radiates contempt for his spoiled, disrespectful grandkids and the Hmong immigrants who now populate his neighborhood. When his young next door neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walt's vintage Gran Torino as a gang initiation stunt, Walt drives off the gangbangers at gunpoint and, more reluctantly, takes Thao under his wing.
Gran Torino's themes and characterizations are about as obvious and unsubtle as a bad Stephen King adaptation. But there's something irresistible about the film's middle section, when Walt gradually bonds with Thao over manual labor and discovers that he has more in common with the Hmong community than his own family. Gran Torino vacillates between critiquing vigilante tactics and endorsing them, but Eastwood's command of the screen ultimately prevails over the film's clunky qualities. And, as opposed to Brad Pitt's semi-magical makeover, Eastwood's face earned the crags and wrinkles that give it character.