Gran Torino is a sensational entertainment and a true testament to Clint Eastwood’s power as an artist. The film is blunt, impactful, and direct, and Eastwood’s performance is one for the ages. A screen icon for over 50 years, took his leathery persona to a new level in Gran Torino in the role of Walt Kowalski, a bitter, racist, Korean war veteran, seemingly tailored made for Eastwood. He’s part Dirty Harry, part Archie Bunker, and all sorts of manly. The didactic yet extremely effective screenplay by Nick Schenk is an angry piece of work. The film is essentially a dissection race (a theme that Eastwood has touched upon his entire career), of different cultures, the mentality of different generations, and how everyone has an idea in their head of how their life is supposed to progress. Eastwood’s simple and unfussy direction is a perfect match for the script. Gran Torino seemed to be speaking for an entire generation of older American males, men who are disgusted by the disintegration of the American heartland and the rapid deterioration of old-school family values. And no matter how misguided the Kowalski character is at various points in the narrative, Eastwood brings his character full circle in a believable fashion. This film is a lot of stuff all at once – it’s wickedly funny, casually racist, always compelling, and strangely moving by its conclusion.
Kowalski has just lost his beloved wife at the start of the film. A war vet who worked for decades at the major Ford plant in Detroit, he’s unimpressed with the remnants of his family and the rapid decline of his city and neighborhood. His grandchildren are slobs and show no respect for their dead grandmother. His sons are foreign car-driving yuppies who would rather put him in a retirement home than do the proper thing and take care of him. But worst of all are the family of Hmong immigrants who have moved into Walt’s neighborhood, which used to be made up of Irish and Italians. Kowalski, who openly insults his neighbors with racial slurs, is revolted by what’s become of his immediate surroundings. Asian and African-American gangs cruise the streets, sparking menace on every corner. It’s the end of an era for men like Kowalski, guys who were raised in a hardscrabble but spirit-defining generation, and Kowalski isn’t going anywhere, no matter how tainted, in his eyes, things have become. The narrative gets complicated when Walt’s neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), a somewhat directionless teenager being bullied by his gang-member cousin, attempts to steal Walt’s vintage 1972 Gran Torino, as part of a gang-initiation. Walt breaks up the attempted theft and then steps in when the gang members continually harass Thao and his pretty sister Sue (Ahney Her), thoroughly kicking one of the gang member’s asses, thus sparking a potentially violent feud.
One of the many surprises of Gran Torino is how brutally funny it is. Yes, the humor tends to be a bit awkward because of the virulent racism that Kowalski spews. But what Schenk’s screenplay gets so right is the anger that a veteran like Kowalski would feel after watching his neighborhood fall into a massive state of spiritual and moral decline. I have no doubt that there is a huge swath of America that resembles what’s on screen in Gran Torino, and for better or for worse, that’s the country that some of us inhabit each and every day. And there is a sad, honest truth to the film that is at turns biting and deceptively sentimental. Eastwood growls and snarls many of his lines, not as a stunt, but as a way of expressing his inner turmoil and seething rage. The other actors who surround Eastwood do a solid job, and while the overall lack of experience on the part of both Vang and Her is obvious at times, over the course of the film, they both improve, especially when paired with Eastwood in the same scene. And in many spots, this amateur quality makes for a more natural feeling resulting in a more emotionally resonant viewing experience.
Gran Torino is, in the end, a movie about tolerance, change, and respect. It doesn’t speechify, it doesn’t preach too hard to its audience, and while the film sometimes feels a bit too schematic at times, it knows what it wants to say and how to say it with force and clarity. There are a few moments with Kowalski where you peer into the soul of a haunted man, and because Eastwood is such a sharp performer, you’re always rooting for him despite his numerous shortcomings. As the film speeds along to its inevitable climax, one gets the sense that this was the role that Eastwood had been leading up to at that point in his career. His legacy as an artist is undeniable, and throughout the years, he’s provided audiences with no shortage of intelligent, thoughtful explorations of America and the people that inhabit this country, their various obsessions and pre-occupations. He’s also a filmmaker with an inherent understanding of violence and the power and impact of the violent cinematic image, and as a result, his films frequently carry an intense emotional force that Gran Torino certainly possesses. This is an instant classic and an almost perfect distillation of the epic screen mythology of Clint Eastwood as a storyteller and actor.