Don’t let the trailers fool you. While it may look like a geriatric Dirty Harry, Gran Torino is anything but. Instead, it’s a film filled with warmth, humor, and a sense of contemplation rarely found in Eastwood’s earlier work.
Clint Eastwood, in his first performance since the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet. As the film opens, he’s at his wife’s funeral. His sons and their families care not a whit for his feelings. They’re more concerned with how he’s treated them over the years. It doesn’t help that whenever anyone tries to reach out, Walt forcefully shoves them away. Walt doesn’t mince words and doesn’t care what people think of him. The only person to attempt to break through his tough façade is the local priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley). Still, Walt is content to tend to his own home, even if all the other residents in the neighborhood, a collection of Asian immigrants collectively known as Hmong, have let their properties run to ruin.
Things change for Walt when the boy next door, Thao (Bee Vang), pressured by a local gang, attempts to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino. Walt chases Thao off, and when the gang tries to come back to harangue Thao about it, the fight spills into Walt’s lawn. Walt chases off the gang members with his shotgun, saving Thao. This act turns Walt into a local hero, despite his protestations. But, with the help of Thao’s brother Sue (Ahney Her), Walt comes to know the family and the community and become a part of it. However, the gang harassing Thao isn’t disappearing, prompting a crisis of conscience on Walt’s part.
Gran Torino’s plot may be about an old war vet facing the threat of gangs in modern times, but the heart of the film revolves around Walt’s relationship with young Thao. The gang aspects of the picture are brief and, while undeniably effective, are less important than the human moments where Walt takes Thao reluctantly under his wing. The screenplay by Nick Schenk invests this relationship with a grudging respect between the pair that pays off wonderfully as time passes. Similarly, Walt’s budding involvement in the community, which he had once written off in a haze of post-Korean War prejudices, is played with just the right level of humor.
In fact, much of Gran Torino is surprisingly funny. Walt is undoubtedly a curmudgeon, but his constant use of racial epithets seem more like an attempt to keep others at a distance instead of a truly deep-seated hatred of other cultures. Perhaps the loner with a heart of gold feels a little trite, but aren’t we all looking for a human connection? Walt is unable to touch his sons and their families on any meaningful level, leaving him wide open and vulnerable when Thao and Sue come into his life.
Even if a written description sounds cliché, the film is directed artfully by Eastwood, displaying a lighter touch than he normally employs. He understands where the heart of the picture lies, and doesn’t try and divert the audience’s attention. Understated and restrained, Eastwood’s direction is the perfect complement to his performance. Taking advantage of every rough creak his voice is capable of, Eastwood is at turns gruff, funny, scary, and sympathetic. He knows his history, and uses the audience’s knowledge of pictures like A Fistful of Dollars and Dirty Harry to lead them in one direction, only to take the film another way entirely.
Among the supporting actors, Bee Vang is suitably awkward and browbeaten as Thao. As he learns from Walt, he comes out of his shell, become a much more confident and assured young man. Vang isn’t the best actor in the world (or in the movie), but he plays the part sincerely. Ahney Her is more smarmy and worldly as Sue, who pushes Walt and Thao together. She works best as a foil to Eastwood, and the verbal sparring between the pair is frequently hilarious.
Gran Torino works best when it’s free to explore the relationship between Walt and Thao. The rest, while not window dressing, doesn’t quite live up to those lively, endearing sequences. In particular, Walt’s discussions with Father Janovich do little but add a self-reflexive commentary the picture doesn’t really require. Still, it would probably be a little awkward to have Walt say some of the things he tells Janovich to Thao, so perhaps those scenes are still necessary. The portions that deal with his family mostly work as a contrast to how he’s received by the Hmong community.
Given its rich film pedigree, and the level of success it achieves on a storytelling level, it’s surprising to see Gran Torino snubbed so thoroughly at the Oscars, with not a single nomination to be found. Still, this is the same group who virtually ignored both The Wrestler and The Dark Knight, the two best films of the year, so perhaps Gran Torino is in the best company of all. Regardless of the acclaim it does or does not get by voting committees, Gran Torino is an excellent picture with plenty of great qualities.
4 out of 5 Stars
|Studio ||Warner Bros. |
|Starring ||Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her |
|Director ||Clint Eastwood |
|MPAA Rating ||
|Running Time ||116 minutes |