Movie Review: Gran Torino
By Matthew Huntley
December 29, 2008
Clint Eastwood is one of the most literal and conservative of Hollywood directors. He's known for his no-nonsense, succinct approach to filmmaking, and there are times when his blunt methods prove incredibly powerful on screen (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby). And yet, there are other times when we want him to be more complicated and oblique (Changeling), to perhaps suggest some gray area in his otherwise black and white worlds. His latest, Gran Torino, falls somewhere in between, but it ultimately lost me.
In most cases, it's the underlining story and performances that govern if Eastwood's style works. Gran Torino contains a decent story, but the supporting performances sometimes cause it to fall flat. Eastwood, in one of his better acting roles, plays an angry and testy widower named Walt Kowalski. Stubborn and set in his own ways, Walt, or "Mr. Kowalski" as he likes to be called, hardly knows his two sons (Brian Haley and Brian Howe) and he gives his grandchildren cold and grim looks at his wife's funeral.
Walt doesn't much care for his new Asian neighbors, either, a Hmong family who recently moved in next door. He looks upon them with disdain and makes racial slurs, but their feisty grandmother sends them right back and mumbles in her native tongue why the grumpy old white man won't just pack up and move away. After all, most of neighborhood has turned Asian anyway. But it's obvious Walt hasn't caught up with the times - he still cuts grass with a push lawn mower, he doesn't accept people of other races, and he refuses to acknowledge foreign cars. He is not unlike a typical American grandfather - a Korean War veteran with traditional, non-bending values from a different era.
Since his wife's death, Walt's greatest love has become his 1972 Gran Torino, which he keeps hidden in his garage. The car reminds him of his glory days as a Ford factory worker. Like he says of many things in his house, "They just don't make them like this anymore."
When an Asian gang spots the Gran Torino in his garage, they coerce Thao (Bee Vang), Walt's 15-year-old neighbor, to steal it as part of his initiation. Walt catches him in the act and might have killed him had he not tripped over a tool box. Thao's sister, Su (Ahney Her), orders her brother to work off his family's dishonor by doing chores for Walt.
This isn't the first time Walt has confronted Thao, Su or the Asian punks. The leader of the gang is actually Thao's cousin and when they start beating up on him and his family in the front lawn, Walt threatens them with a gun, grinding his teeth and ordering them, "Get off my lawn." Even if Walt was only looking out himself, the rest of the neighborhood considers him a hero and they show their respects by placing an inordinate amount of food on his porch.
After Thao starts his penance, he and Walt form an unlikely friendship. The old man takes the boy under his wing and sort of becomes a surrogate father figure. He helps Thao find a construction job; he teaches him about tools, hardware and dating; and he gives him a lesson on how real men talk to each other. There's an amusing scene when Walt takes Thao to the local barber shop, and Walt and the barber (John Carroll Lynch) exchange harmless racial insults. "You see, that's how real men talk."