Starring Clint Eastwood
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Meet Walt Kowalski: Korean War vet, retired autoworker, habitual racist, ornery coot, and, most recently, widower. Walt’s the sort of man who can’t stand any of the people crowding his suburban Detroit home for the occasion of his wife’s wake, and, when he steps out on the porch for a little solitude and sees a Hmong family moving in next door, can’t stand them either, just on principle. But he’s played by Clint Eastwood, in a movie Eastwood directed, so no matter what kind of bastard Walt is, you know you’re probably going to like him.
With his wife not around anymore, all Walt really wants to do is sit on that porch, swigging PBRs, gnawing beef jerky, and muttering spiteful pronouncements to his loyal yellow Lab, Daisy, who absorbs them without judgment. He has kids, who’ve gotten puffy and complacent as they’ve grown up, and grandkids, who seem like an old man’s nightmare of bratty entitlement. There’s also an unseasoned young priest (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt’s wife he’d get him into confession, and hovers accordingly.
And then there are the new neighbors. When one of them, a sensitive kid named Thao (Bee Vang), shows up at Walt’s door, the old man snaps, “Have some respect, zipperhead — we’re in mourning here.” The self-incriminating irony of that line is lost on Walt, but not on Eastwood, who became famous in part by knowing how to play seething intolerance for laughs, and who seems — at least at first — to intend his reportedly final film performance as satirically comedic. OK, could be fun. Walt’s worldview has calcified into a constant pose, the maintenance of which is obviously much easier for him than that of his actual feelings. He also maintains two objects of apparent sentimental value: the M-1 rifle that he carried in combat and the muscle car, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, that signifies his former company’s long-gone glory days. And when Thao, under pressure from his gangbanger cousin, tries to steal the latter, he finds himself staring down the barrel of the former and into Walt’s beady, glaring eyes.
Assuming your willingness to indulge it, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As it happens, Walt’s growling, gun-toting machismo becomes a form of protection for Thao against the gang, for which the boy’s family feels indebted. So, as a gesture of apology and goodwill, Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) patiently insists that Thao shall now be at Walt’s service.
He responds precisely in the manner of Dirty Harry having a new partner assigned, reluctantly putting Thao to work on a few odd jobs and eventually — inevitably — taking on his own project of manning the kid up. This involves exposing Thao to the crassly joshing rapport Walt has with his barber (John Carroll Lynch), loaning him tools, and brusquely advising him on the matter of talking to girls. (Walt’s proud comment about having gotten the best woman on Earth to marry him seems well-earned; she must have been quite a lady, and it’s too bad the movie never could introduce her.)
Meanwhile, Sue gets a rescue of her own, in a scene whose vanity-skewing cameo from Eastwood’s own son Scott isn’t quite amusing enough to mitigate its stereotype-endorsing turns from the movie’s only black actors. She also gets wise to Walt’s posturing, and gets him over to her house, where he realizes, in his most tonally exact line, “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled rotten family … Jesus Christ!” A hateful geezer, yes, but a hateful geezer of, um, honor? As the plot thickens, he’ll have a chance to prove it.
Never mind that Archie Bunker had this routine down when Gran Torinos were still fresh on Ford’s assembly line. This is Eastwood, after all. And besides, the movie goes further — deeper and darker — than a sitcom ever could, limning the troubled legacy of tribalist masculinity rituals, positing vigilantism as an articulation of racial anxiety and fear of progress, and, well, yadda yadda.
Which is to say that Gran Torino squanders some of the penance it pays for Eastwood’s previous directorial effort, the dully clunky Changeling, by becoming ridiculously, leadenly heavy in and of itself. When it ends, it is not so comedic — not intentionally anyway — and not so fun. Maybe that’s just how it has to be. Even given Nick Schenk’s uneven script, and several uneven performances, including one from its star, Gran Torino needn’t be perfect to seem like the perfect, career-summarizing Clint Eastwood film.