Theatrical Review: Gran Torino

Gran Torino
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Nick Schenk
Story: Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk
Producer: Clint Eastwood
Tom Stern
Editor: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Music: Kyle Eastwood & Michael Stevens
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her 
U.S.A., 2008, 116 minutes

Just in time for the Academy’s big “Fuck You” sendoff to Clint Eastwood, my long-delayed review of Gran Torino.
If you had described the plots to me, side by side, I would have said that Clint Eastwood’s higher-profile film, Changeling, was going to be a more interesting film than it’s seemingly thinner Gran Torino and I would have been about as wrong as I could be. While the former Angelina Jolie vehicle was blatant, mawkish, heavy-handed Oscar bait, the latter is the real gem of the end-of-the-year crop. Those who believe he’s still got his chops as an actor, director and (immensely underrated) composer and overcome the agist, knee-jerk impulse to write him off as “done,” should see this well acted and directed look at age and race relations in a 21st century America.
Gran Torino is many things, but a standard revenge film it is not. Loaded with far more humor and subtlety than the typical vengeance film, it’s far similar in tone to Robert Benton’s excellent 1994 Paul Newman pic Nobody’s Fool than it is Death Wish.

We’re introduced to Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) at his wife’s funeral and get our first insight into the man as he growls (literally, “grrrr!”) when his disrespectful grandkids arrive at the funeral dressed sloppily and behaving disrespectfully. I found it hard to believe that anyone would allow their son to attend his grandmother’s funeral in a Detroit Lions jersey but that heavy-handed note is soon forgotten when a granddaughter shows up sporting a pierced navel in a midriff-bearing top and a third crosses himself with “spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch,” an old way for kids to remember the sign of the cross. Walt clearly has never really connected with his sons of their family, none of whom seem to be too broken up at the passing of their mother/grandmother.
Walt could be a hybrid of gruff Gunny Highway from Heartbreak Ridge, Unforgiven‘s haunted gunfighter Bill Munny and Paul Newman’s grouchy Sully Sullivan from the aforementioned Benton film. he’s a crusty, almost non-verbal Korean War vet who spouts foul, racist epithets almost every time he opens his mouth and who has clearly been affected by his time in the military. A man of a certain age, he was raised in a different time but the times they have a changed and Walt hasn’t change with them. His Detroit neighborhood is a stark example of “white flight” and instead of Walt’s former working class, auto worker neighbors, the area is now the home of Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia. The Hmong allied with the US during Vietnam and as a result, beat a hasty retreat from the victorious Communists after the war, many of them settling around the US.
This last bit of history is imparted to Walt by his young neighbor Sue (Ahney Her) During a talk after Walt saves her from a dangerous situation involving, for lack of a better phrase, street thugs. It’s through the younger generation of his Hmong neighbors, Sue and her brother Thao (Bee Vang) that Walt grudgingly begins to connect with his neighbors. When Walt saves Thao from a cousin intent on drafting him into a Hmong street gang, he endears himself to the neighborhood, much to his initial chagrin, as they ply him with gifts of food and flowers and gains an initially reluctant pupil in Thao, who is facing fierce pressure from the other young Hmong men to join said gang. In explaining the attraction of gangs to Walt, Sue points out that the women in her culture have tended to fare better in the US than the men. “Hmong girls go to college, Hmong boys go to prison,” she explains.
Yes, we’ve seen this material before, but rarely with such a subtle touch. Eastwood’s coup in his direction is taking such an outsized, (mostly) unpleasant and corse lead and seamlessly integrating him into the broader story as a fully rounded human being. A caricature, Walt is not.
Gran Torino plays somewhat like an updated, post-9/11 Dirty Harry, but Walt is a softer touch than Harry ever was. Despite his almost permanent stream of racist invective, Walt’s sense of justice and fairness are more developed and less black & white than Harry Callahan’s ever were and he is nowhere near the single-minded judge, jury & executioner that was that earlier character. Walt spends his time either tinkering around the house or with the titular car or sitting on his front porch, drinking Pabst and talking to his yellow lab Daisy (and in one particularly winning scene, reading Daisy her horoscope).
Walt’s bark is far worse than his bite and many of us know people like this. They’re elderly, resistant to change and more often than not, have recently gone through a major life change. Walt’s wife was everything to him. As he tells Thao, while trying to impart some advice about women: “I may not be the most pleasant person to be around, but I got the best woman who was ever on this planet to marry me. I worked at it, it was the best thing ever happened to me.” It’s no wonder then, that after her passing that this likely already taciturn man would retreat into a defensive shell. His tether to his past is gone and he feel adrift in a strange world. As he warms up to his neighbors (and they to him) he recognizes that while he has nothing in common with his own children and their spoiled grandchildren he might just be of some use to his new neighbors and they to him.
Writing off Gran Torino (as I have heard fellow writers do) as “white man teaches immigrants about life and death” is to do this film a great disservice. It’s a much more complex film and the lessons pass both ways, with Walt learning just as much from his neighbors and his new, widowed circumstances as he imparts to his new protégée, Thao. These are confusing times for many and Eastwood’s Walt tries to make what sense he can.

Photos by Anthony Michael Rivetti © Warner Bros.

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