An icon in his own right, Clint Eastwood is a fixture, a flavor. His gravelly voice pushes all his characters automatically into the “crusty” category and the topographical map of his face renders him unmessable-with. In Gran Torino, also-director Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty, unmessable-with Korean war veteran watching his Detroit neighborhood enjoy the freedoms he fought to protect — by turning his quiet suburbia into a gangland playground. Walt is as racist as he is tall, wrinkly, cantankerous, intolerant, and reclusive — and that’s saying something. His overt, audible epithets are so surprising, colorful, and fearless that you laugh in shock and worry for his safety. He doesn’t keep to the old classics either, he’s very creative with his hatred, revealing his obsessive love for that feeling.
Next door is a quiet Hmong family, targeted by a local Hmong gang. Siblings Sue and Thao (Ahney Her and Bee Vang, respectively) come under his wing by accident and quite against his wishes, and now Walt must fight to retain his crusty isolationism in the face of kindness. Here the movie takes a turn for the better. The first half of the film spends its time overtly telling us things we need to know, and features an intolerable rapidly-blinking priest (Christopher Carley). We were therefore disarmed when the film abruptly becomes dark, fascinating, interesting, terrifying, and emotional. Not unlike Million Dollar Baby (I realize I am overusing this comparison), the true key event of the film takes place late in its 116 minute run time, and then you can’t stop biting off your fingernails.
Story writer Dave Johannson and screenwriter Nick Schenk have a good feel for the street talk and casual cruelty of the young characters, and brings Walt’s anachronistic presence into sharp contrast. Watching Walt parked defiantly on his porch with his beers and his dog, as his watches his old neighborhood crumble around him, we feel his age even if we do not share his years.
Walt tangles with his selfish, entitled family and then with his generous, deferential neighbors, his feet still stuck in the muddy horrors of Korea. We get inside this guy’s skin and respect him, despite his every action to make him unsympathetic. As the clouds of terror gather in Act III, Walt’s soldier within shines out — both in good and bad ways. I was grateful for a particular act of horror taking place offscreen — and its impact was in no way lessened by not seeing it happen. After the clumsy beginning, the movie has so sunk you into your relationship with Walt and Sue and Thao that you are almost sadder for it ending than for any of the events that occur. Her and Vang do a great job in their film debuts (certainly better than Carley!) and Eastwood’s career has pretty much led him right to this perfect role for him. By the end, I loved this movie, but it took a while to snag me.
MPAA Rating R-language throughout, violence
Release date 1/9/08
Time in minutes 116
Director Clint Eastwood
Studio Warner Brothers