Gran Torino

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I’m a Clint Eastwood fan. As a director, Eastwood has made some lovely films (Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima) and he’s made some turkeys (True Crime, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, etc.). Often, though, his direction has lacked subtlety, making points and conveying information so broadly and obviously as to be cringe-inducing. Gran Torino falls in that unfortunate category, but it saves itself thanks to Eastwood’s own presence in the lead, and winning performances from two of his young co-stars.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit auto worker and a Korean War vet whose wartime experiences have hardened him into an inveterate racist, particularly towards Asians. He’s an angry loner (an out-to-pasture Dirty Harry, if you will) and, to drive home the point, Eastwood makes the choice of having Walt growl audibly when he’s angered. It’s funny, but not entirely in the way intended; Walt’s growling gives the rest of the movie a cloddish, awkward vibe, and we know we’re not exactly on sophisticated ground here.

Gran Torino picks up following the death of Walt’s wife. His relationships with his two grown sons is, put kindly, distant and disdainful. Alone, save for the company of his dog Daisy, Walt retires into a lonely life, nursing his bitterness with beer and cigarettes. When he isn’t railing against the young Catholic priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who dutifully looks in on him, Walt is bemoaning the influx of Hmong immigrants into his neighborhood. Occasionally, he coughs up bloody sputum, alarming him with signals of mortality.

One night, Walt catches Thao (Bee Vang), the Hmong teenager from the family next door, trying to steal his car — a mint condition Gran Torino. As payback for the attempted theft, Thao’s family insists that the boy help Walt with household chores and upkeep. Each morning, Thao dutifully shows up — contrite but simmering with adolescent resentment — for painting or yard work while Walt sits on his stoop, nursing beer after beer. Meanwhile, Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her), sweet and self-assured, befriends Walt and draws him into her family circle. Lacking any home life of his own, Walt obliges, though his old racial hatreds keep gnawing at him. Slowly, though predictably, the walls of alienation that Walt that has thrown up begin to fall away, and he develops a genuine closeness to Thao and Sue, and concern for their welfare, prompted especially because a local Asian gang has begun terrorizing them.

Walt tries to “man up” the shy and unassertive Thao, but his attempts consist of coaching him on how to talk trash. The scene involves Walt trading vulgar jibes with his barber (John Carroll Lynch) — it’s funny in a naive, sophomoric sort of way and doesn’t accomplish much except cheap laughs. It’s every bit as heavy-handed as Walt’s face-offs with Janovich, larded with talk of sex, love, death, and loneliness. Every time, you come away feeling sorry for Carley who, as the young priest, has nothing to work with. He’s all but a doormat for Eastwood’s Walt to wipe his feet on, making for shallow scenes of false spiritual heft and clunky, uneven performances as Carley is sadly outmatched by Eastwood.

What comes off best are Walt’s interactions with Thao and Sue. Vang and Her may be inexperienced actors but they bring genuine charm and sweetness to their roles. This is where the heart of Gran Torino resides — in that dynamic between the wounded older Walt and the innocent, vulnerable teenagers who befriend him. The dying Walt’s thawing-out and moral humbling in the company of these two and their traditional family is painted in broad strokes, but it’s heart is in the right place. When the gang’s overtures of menace towards Thao, Sue, and their family boil over at last into a horrible episode of violence, Walt takes it upon himself to mete out vengeance.

The final reckoning isn’t so much between Walt and a bunch of punks (a la Dirty Harry), but between Walt’s competing halves: The embittered shell of a man, full of age-old grievances, quick to violence versus the redeemed human being, chastened by a newfound sense of purpose and responsibility. Meanwhile, we find Eastwood the director struggling with his competing instincts: Will we get the darkly elegant soul-searching of Unforgiven or the clumsy, over-the-top histrionics of Mystic River? The answer is both. Indeed, Gran Torino is a smorgasbord of Eastwood’s skills as filmmaker — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and how well you digest it will depend on your appetite.
Grade: C+

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Nick Schenk
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch, William Hill

13 comments

  1. C+? Ok, your opinion, but I can’t agree :) I was expecting something great – in completely different way. I was served completely different meal, but it was even greater! No action “you crossed way with the wrong guy” but decent psycho drama about old man and his life, pressed in the space of few days and one porch…
    Congrats Clint, I hope I will be able to do such things in my 78!!
    (nice site btw.)

    1. The ones that misjudge this movie dont appreciate the value of it.Clint Eastwood did a great job and it takes courage to develop a movie like that.So please stop insulting Clint Eastwood’s work and get a life.

  2. This movie drew me right in so that I came out of the theater with that dazed feeling of having to get used to the real world. As a 70 year old former social worker, it seems to me that Walt’s crude, derisive ways of helping Thau ring true.
    His intent was nurturing. The part of the young priest was so apt, offering text book babble to one who is bereft. And the priest grew to be able to make a real connection in the course of the film.

  3. The gang stuff seemed – manufactered, predictable and cliched. If Eastwoods intention was to build tension here, well… I didn’t feel much to be honest, because that whole plot ‘ r u with us? come on, hang with us, alright you’re dead!’… just didn’t seem convincing enough, so I couldn’t get on board for the emotional ride.

  4. You dont know what you are talking about this movie is great and you have not idea what it takes to make a movie like that once you are past your youth.Check your material first and then criticize.Clint Eastwood have a lot of good history behind his years in films lets give him the respect we owe him.Lets appreciate what he has done so far instead on hating on his work.Get a decent life and appreciate other’s work even if it wasnt your own.

  5. I can’t really agree with you. I thought that the movie deserves at the very least a B-, although you did raise some valid points in the article.

  6. I’m not going to berate you because we differ in cinematic taste, as my quasi-literate peer, John, chose to do. (Or try to do, rather).

    But really, I do disagree with your evaluation of Gran Torino. Was some of it a little cliche? Sure. But we’re living in a day and age where if something could be done, it HAS been done. I think at a point, we have to get beyond how jaded we all have become.

    I think the underlying message of the film, along with powerful performances by Eastwood and the two teenagers, completely outweigh any shortcomings it may have had. You commented that some of the dialogue was juvenile, sophomoric — but it was intended to be just that. That’s who the character was. And it’s okay to laugh at something even if it isn’t high-brow comedy.

    I really think you missed the base on what I thought was a powerful movie. And you know, that’s okay. I think some of my fellow readers need to be reminded that a film critic’s job is not to spew out a “review” based on popular opinion and media hype. A critic’s job is to objectively look at a film and critique it based on his or her own criteria. If you disagree with that critique, fine, but there’s no reason to resort to name-calling.

    Now I’ll bow out before I get too preachy.

  7. So far this year my favourite movie is definitely Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen. I don’t care what the critics say big robots and lots of explosions, what more can you possibly want

  8. I really loved this movie.

    I’ve been disappointed in Eastwood movies lately. I’ve seen great movies where the flaw of the movie was Eastwood himself. He seems unable to separate personal, compulsive quips from higher purpose. I.e. scenes that should be left on the editor’s floor. It can be like witnessing someone with Tourette’s syndrome. However, even his earlier movies suffer this, especially to include Dirty Harry. Yet, that every Eastwood movie is important to Clint comes through in everything he does. I really like that. It’s what made Rowdy Yates so attractive.

    The story is poignant. Cliche is always tolerated when well-told, and Gran Torino is well-told. Acting is uniformly excellent, down to the bit players. Eastwood always shines in this aspect, and that is what makes most of his movies worth seeing. Finally, Eastwood’s presentation of the Hmung is very even-handed. I appreciate his use of these honorable people.

    Walt, ashamed of- and haunted by- his Silver Star for half a century, earns it. He even upgrades it to worthy of the Medal of Honor. What a story!

    Solid ‘B’ in my book. If Eastwood had not made this movie, I’m sure I would not have liked it at all.

  9. Did you say Midnight in the garden of good and evil was a turkey?? How can you possibly be taken seriously after a statement like that.

  10. >and how you well you digest it will depend on your appetite.

    How the fuck are you a top critic,also fuck you’re taste in movies.

  11. You totally missed the point of the movie Mr. Reviewer.

    “full of age-old grievances, quick to violence, vs. the redeemed human being, chastened by a newfound sense of purpose and responsibility”

    Did you just start typing? Or did you actually think this makes sense? Both are sad. Show me where he had”newfound sense of purpose and responsibility”.

    This movie was excellent.

    Sprinkled throughout the movie are Walt’s references that “you never want to know what it’s like to kill a person”, and the inference is that it shaped him to become who he was. As the preacher said “you know more about death than you do life”.

    Many of the people I know dissapointed in the movie totally missed the point. They wanted a shootout at the end, but instead Clint inflicted the curse on the gangsters – “you don’t want to know what it’s like to kill a man”

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