Gran Torino (2008) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and violence
Running time: 116 min.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, John Carroll Walker, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe. Scott Eastwood
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Nick Schenk
Review published February 17, 2017 (written in January 2009)
There are two key moments in the film that elevated it as a whole from a good to a great film, both confessionals of a sort. In the first confession, a formal one, our protagonist (Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby) cannot give or admit 100% to those sins that have haunted his life for so many years. In the second, he finally does. Comparing the two scenes, one can see they are linked to each other through the use of a mesh screen, one being the confession booth and the other just a locked door in his house, but through both, he seeks a form of forgiveness for all of the bad things he has done. The brilliance of the contrast may go by unnoticed by many viewers, but to me, it told me that inside of this 87-year-old mind, director Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Blood Work) is as sharp and astute as ever, crafting another one of his finest films of his career.
Eastwood plays a bigoted, retired auto worker and Korean War vet named Walt Kowalski, recently suffering the loss of his beloved wife. His sons and their families are fairly unsympathetic, seemingly biding their time to pick what's left of the belongings of their parents before Walt is even in the grave. Walt is also finding it difficult to cope as the last remaining WASP in an increasingly crime-ridden suburban Detroit neighborhood that has become a place where many poor Hmong families have adopted as their own. His isolationist position is compromised when his Hmong neighbors encroach onto his lawn, and into his life, when Thao (Vang), the extremely shy but bright boy next door, tries to steal Walt's mint condition Gran Torino as part of a reluctant gang initiation. Thao's family is shamed by the boy's behavior, forcing him to work for Walt until the debt of shame is repaid with whatever chores need doing. Walt's icy exterior melts enough to at least tolerate the lad, but the street gang is adamant about gaining their new member, and they won't take no for an answer in anything.
Although a very serious film underneath, Eastwood imbues his drama with a great deal of comic relief, able to evoke a certain charm out of its characters that might otherwise keep the story in the realm of revenge exploitation. There's a humanity to the characters that keeps them from falling into easy stereotypes, as Walt could have been just another Archie Bunker of the neighborhood. Viewing how Eastwood portrays Kowalski, you sense that he isn't so much a bigot because he has anything against various races so much as he clings desperately to a life and ideas he has held for decades. Much like the Gran Torino of the film's title, he wants everything as intact as the day he first possessed them, whether it includes his possessions or the antiquated notions of how America should be.
Eastwood carries this film as only he can, casting relative unknowns in every role other than his own. It's a move that could have easily backfired, as there is a level of stiffness evident in the delivery that might suggest that more experience actors could have made the chemistry gel. However, it works here, primarily because most scenes involve awkwardness, not knowing how to act or behave when confronted by antagonistic behavior, or new situations. Actors who look like they always know what they're doing would have been difficult to believe.
There are a couple of ways one can view Gran Torino, which may ultimately affect just how much enjoyment one gets from the film. The first is as a straightforward drama, in which it tells a story about a bigot whose icy exterior melts as he realizes that people of other religions and cultures are, despite speaking different languages and performing what we might consider strange rituals, just as much a part of the fabric of his society as he is. There is entertainment that can be had by keeping the story on the surface level, as there are some good moments of drama interspersed with some funny scenes, a few perhaps contrived, but always earning the interest of most moviegoers. it's predictable, but it's pure Clint, and that should be enough for most.
The second way to view the movie is the way that I ended up seeing it -- as an allegory of our country and its waning values and its growing multiculturalism. It's evident from the way that the American flag is framed in the same shot as Kowalski's house and person that Eastwood is striving for something deeper than just one old guy with serious racial gripes. Kowalski represents America of the past, with his overt racism, his rampant territorialism and xenophobia ("Get off my lawn!" is one of the film's more publicized outbursts), and clinging to things that represent how great America is through restorations of how things used to be. The homogenized America that he always knew is gone. No more neighborhoods filled with folks with heritages similar to yours. No more going to work at the auto plant, as many of the plants closed shop years ago.
The Gran Torino of 1972 hearkens back to the days just before Richard Nixon would disgrace the office with Watergate, while protesters would shout anti-American sentiments at returning soldiers for the publicized horrors of Vietnam. It also represents an automotive industry before the decline, going into increasing amounts of debt, losing the automotive allure to smaller and more efficient vehicles, and squeezing out the human element of its shops with more automated processes. It is not a coincidence that this film is set in Motor City -- a city that has declined in its richer qualities like no other due to the collapse of so many of the things that once made the United States the world leader in everything it had set out to do.
So, sure, you can just see this film as the story of an old guy who gets pissed at the world around him, and be mildly entertained, or you can open your mind and realize that there is a very sharp and clever mind at work in Eastwood's parable of the United States and its current position in the world. America, whose days of glory have been built mostly on past achievements, and despite being flawed by elements of racism and some atrocities committed, has done some good and noble things to better the world. In Walt Kowalski, we see America at a crossroads -- an aging fighter in an ever more dangerous world, unable to see injustice after injustice carried out against people who are defenseless. We sacrifice our safety, security, and even our lives to try to keep the thugs and bullies from having dominion, because no one else is strong or brave enough to carry on the fight.
©2009, 2017 Vince Leo