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.
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