Clint Eastwood learns lessons about friendship in Gran Torino.
Way back in the 1980s, long before Unforgiven provided a status upgrade to American film’s most honored elder statesman, Clint Eastwood was a marginal figure in Hollywood, working at a remove from the studio system, knocking out cheap-and-dirty, low-budget crowd pleasers.
Much to the consternation of critics, half-kidding larks like The Dead Pool or Heartbreak Ridge made millions of dollars. The slapdash production values, amateur-hour supporting casts and generally rude air of lowbrow humor often blinded folks to the fact that these films were a bit more thoughtful than expected, particularly with regard to the way Eastwood manipulated and questioned his own mythic persona.
After his recent punishing run of downbeat dramas, Eastwood must have been in a nostalgic mood. (Or maybe he, too, sat through Changeling and decided enough of this Oscar crap already.) Whatever the case, Gran Torino finds Eastwood pulling double duty behind and in front of the camera, sputtering, spitting and cussing his way through his most baroquely gravel-voiced performance since Heartbreak.
From the opening moments, in which a disapproving Eastwood notices his granddaughter’s navel piercing and actually growls into the camera lens, Torino clearly ain’t trying to be one of this director’s austere chamber pieces.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grizzled old Korean War vet who, after the death of his wife, tends to while away the days sitting on his front porch guzzling cans of PBR, offering salty observations on the decline of his white-flight Detroit neighborhood. Barking ridiculous, dated slurs for every minority in his sight, he’s like Dirty Harry in the sunset years.
Walt’s got little affection for his fat, greedy sons, and don’t get him started on those dipshit grandkids. He just polishes his mint condition 1972 Gran Torino, the gleaming Michigan muscle car serving as an unsubtle emblem for the vanished America of Walt’s better days.
A variety of contrivances find Walt begrudgingly befriending a family of Hmong immigrants next door. Young Thao (Bee Vang) is an awkward, bookish kid—prime recruitment material for the local gangs. These thugs make the huge mistake of scuffling on Walt’s pristine front yard and kicking over the wrong geezer’s garden gnome.
There are few sights in recent movies more slyly amusing than the 78-year-old Eastwood staring down a crew of teenage gangbangers, brandishing an M-1 Army rifle and snarling: “Get off my lawn.”
Nick Schenk’s screenplay is hardly sophisticated stuff, but it’s nonetheless a pleasure to watch crotchety bigot Eastwood warming up to his “fish-head” neighbors. Walt takes Thao under his wing; attempting to teach him the value of hard work, how to talk like a man, or at the very least how to “stop acting like such a goddamned pussy all the time.” In the process, this mean old dog learns a few new tricks, eventually coming to the enlightened conclusion that he’s got more in common with his neighbors than with his own family.
As befitting Eastwood’s past efforts, Gran Torino looks like it was shot over a long weekend and probably cost about $15. Clumsy and crude, the entire movie is pitched at the same hyperbolic level as Eastwood’s oversized turn. And yet it’s preposterously entertaining throughout, playing like catnip to longtime Eastwood fans.
There’s a valedictory air to his performance here, studded with explicit references to Harry Callahan, Gunny Highway and Josey Wales. Walt’s even got an adversarial relationship with a young Catholic priest—played quite badly by Christopher Carley—that feels like the cartoon version of Million Dollar Baby.
But what’s most interesting is that, despite the broad comedic tone and a couple of badass showdown sequences worthy of a Dirty Harry sequel, Gran Torino is suffused with Eastwood’s career-spanning reckoning that most problems can’t really be solved by an angry white guy with a gun. (In fact, he usually just makes them worse.) As the movie meanders toward its melodramatic conclusion, Walt Kowalski realizes that he’s grown obsolete, a companion piece to that old car in his driveway.
If, as rumored, this really is Eastwood’s final screen performance, it’s a fitting send-off to a unique screen persona.