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January 14, 2009 > Movie Review: Gran Torino - Vintage Eastwood

Movie Review: Gran Torino - Vintage Eastwood

By Joe Samagond

Gran Torino (2008) takes its name from a 1972 Ford parked in a driveway of the lead character. It is a thought provoking drama directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. He plays Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker (Ford) alienated from his family and community. Walt spends most of his time growling, tinkering around the house, mowing his small lawn, and raging against a world that has changed. If you can survive the language littered with F-bombs and the near-constant ethnic diatribes, Gran Torino is not to be missed.

Kowalski's wife has recently died and he's the last white person left in an old neighborhood which has seen an influx of immigrants. Presumably his wife was a stabilizing influence but without her he is anger, bitterness and loneliness personified. He sits day after day on his porch guzzling beer, scowling at his neighbors and calling them vicious ethnic slurs. His relationship with his greedy, selfish family is only a little better. After a long life Walt has no tolerance left for laziness or fools. "Pussy!" he snarls whenever someone fails to live up to his expectations.

But Walt is also a man of principle and character. When gangbangers rough up the Lors - a quiet Hmong (people from Southeast Asia) family next door, he drives them off with a rifle in a classic, Eastwood standoff. His grateful neighbors don't buy it when he growls that he simply didn't want the troublemakers on his lawn and Walt wakes up the next morning to discover his porch littered with gifts. Walt isn't interested in their friendship at first, but eventually starts to see some value in Thao and Sue, the Lor family's well-behaved kids, a marked contrast to his own self-absorbed grandchildren. As he gets tired of his constant loneliness, Walt finally accepts an invitation to dinner next door where he surprises himself by enjoying Hmong food.

In another Hollywood film, this is the point where the racist Walt would be magically transformed into one who begins to appreciate racial diversity. The movie would end with him weeping and perhaps reconnecting with his son and establishing a relationship with his grandchildren. Well, that does not happen in Eastwood's Gran Torino. Its cold realism makes it a good movie. There's obvious affection between Walt and his neighbors but he remains the same unforgiving, bitter old grouch he is at the beginning of the film. Rather than a transformation of Walt, he sets out to change the Lors by taking Thao under his wing to build character and to "man" him up. Walt begins to love Thao and his family but goes right on calling them "chinks" and "spoonheads." It's not out of malice, just the way it's always been with Walt. Thao and Sue look past his words to his actions. They have seen the good in him and it outweighs whatever it is that makes him such a curmudgeon.

If there is any change in Walt it is that his tolerance for the thugs and gangbangers who harass his friends decreases. He sets out to protect Thao and Sue by packing a pistol and refusing to put up with crap. As Walt lets Thao and Sue in, he starts to care. The more he starts to care the less he can stand to let the scum continue to rule his neighborhood. He loads his weapon and stands up. This cycle leads a heart-rending finale in which Walt finds a costly way to ensure that the Lor family can live the life they want to lead with peace and dignity.

Clint Eastwood's performance as Walt is his best work as an actor in years, a return to all of the things that made him great as a younger actor. He is brilliant and shocking, so over the top that he is often funny. The rest of the cast is average. Bee Vang and Ahney Her fair better as Thao and Sue, but it's Eastwood that makes Gran Torino so compelling.

The film does have some worthwhile commentary on ethnicity. Walt's neighbors are hard working and the kind of people whose values actually embody 'real Americans' in the eyes of so many who oppose immigration and decry the American melting pot. The film also explores the thesis that the very people who most strongly oppose immigration (conservative, lower-income suburbanites) are the ones who often live in multi-cultural neighborhoods. The film also does a masterful job of highlighting that friendships between different races actually allow for more overtly humorous racism, since there is no longer any malicious intent.

While Gran Torino is not a masterpiece, it is a superb and an unpretentious movie. It is quite far from politically correct but it has a vibrant heart that pumps until the end. Gran Torino is smarter, broader, funnier, and more straightforward than you might expect. This is the Clint Eastwood we will all remember - brilliant, principled, tough and straight from the heart.

Rated: R for language and some violence
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

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