That’s it ladies and gentlemen, if he’s true to his word, then “Gran Torino could very well be Clint Eastwood’s acting swan song, and what a way to go.
Shot in about three weeks with a budget of about $35 million, the film went to earn $145 million in North America, eventually becoming Eastwood’s all time highest grossing film (without inflation calculations).
The enormous appeal behind the film is understandable. “Gran Torino has been recurrently described as Harry Callahan in retirement, and initially, that’s what the film appears to be.
But “Gran Torino is more than that. It’s comedy-cum-drama-cum-action flick that is purely American from head to toe in terms of the themes it carries and the dying values it mourns. It’s also a story about aging, about a man finally coming to terms with his own dark past; and it all culminates into a heart-tugging ending that perfectly serve as Eastwood’s farewell note.
Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a cantankerous, foul-mouthed, tough-skinned, outrageously blunt retired autoworker. He is also a decorated Korean War veteran and a recent widower living in a Michigan neighborhood that has been virtually overtaken by a Hmong (an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia) community.
Walt is completely estranged from his two sons and grandchildren. At the beginning of the film, during his wife’s funeral, you can easily tell he somehow despises the whole lot. His family isn’t that affectionate or caring either. Early on, his skanky, spoiled, belly-button wearing teenage granddaughter asks if he can spare some of his furniture for her college apartment since he’s too old and doesn’t look like he’s got plenty of time to live. Later on, his son and his daughter-in-law suggest that he move to a nursing home and leave them the house. Of course, he kicks them out immediately.
Walt only has three companions: his dog Lucie, his gun and his vintage 1972 Gran Torino car that everyone wants. He has no relationship with his next door neighbors whom he calls “gooks and “chinks. He catches his shy, bookish and sensitive young neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) red-handed in his garage and looks ready to shoot him, but the boy escapes. Thao is bullied by the local gang to steal Walt’s Gran Torino.
When the Hmong gang violently harasses Thao’s family in public, Walt picks up his rifle and drives the gang away. The next day, Walt, the disgruntled, racist recluse, is transformed into the neighborhood hero, with every family invading his privacy and dropping by a variety of gifts at his doorstep every day. Reluctant at first, he eventually succumbs to their friendly gestures (and their tasty chicken).
Meanwhile, Thao’s charming and sweet sister Sue (Ahney Her) puts her brother in Walt’s service to make up for the attempted burglary. Walt accepts Sue’s offer, enlisting Thao for odd jobs and takes him in one memorable trip to the barbershop to “man-him up.
Prior to its release, and despite my great fondness for Eastwood, I wasn’t particularly enthused about “Gran Torino, especially after the minor disappointment of his other new release “Changeling. The story sounded somewhat banal and too conventional: a bigoted old-man learns to overcome his prejudices and replaces his ungrateful family with his loving neighbors.
Truth be told, the Nick Schenk’s script lacks a proper setup for the characters, which makes it feel quite clunky and unpolished in parts. The performances of the young amateur cast members are a mixed bag.
However, “Gran Torino is – in structure, subject and payoff – wholeheartedly a classic story; a modern western set in post-racial America. Unlike the period-piece “Changeling – a flawed, yet engaging picture spoilt by Angelina Jolie’s overblown performance – Eastwood’s latest work is lean, mean with no frills and real pathos.
What makes this semi-archetypal story vivacious and greatly entertaining is Eastwood’s performance; a throwback to the ruthless, unbending lawmen and outlaws he played in his prolific career.
His fury and restlessness are delectably communicated in every twitch, sneer, rumbling and never-ending torrent of jaw-dropping slurs. In the film’s most talked-about scene, where he tells the gang – in the most sinister of tones – to “Get off my lawn, there isn’t an ounce of doubt that this is one angry dude you don’t want to mess with.
Why does Eastwood’s performance feel so liberating? Well, I guess that in this day and age where everything and everyone is judged from the political-correctness prism, Walt emerges as a rebel; a pariah and a samurai, a lone cowboy in a modern world.
At a time when social hypocrisy seems to be the norm, Eastwood’s character stands out as a relic of a bygone era. He has nothing to hide; what you see is simply what you get. He doesn’t give a damn what others think of him. He might be vulgar, aggressive and chauvinistic, but he’s true to himself, and he continues to abide by values that no longer have a place in this world.
The first two-thirds of the film are pure fun, painted with broad brushstrokes to produce a top-notch crowd-pleasing romp. The last part takes an acute detour, allowing Eastwood to expound on the moral themes he’s continuously explored in past films – futility of violence, taking the law in one’s hand and the agonizing road to faith and redemption.
Several comparisons have been made between “Gran Torino and John Wayne’s last movie “The Shootist (1976) where he plays a dying gunslinger attempting to have an honorable and meaningful death. The comparison is quite valid, but I believe that “Gran Torino is a superior picture, mainly because of Eastwood’s richer and more complex legacy.
There’s a line near the end of the film that echoes “Unforgiven’s iconic “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Right at that moment, we finally see Kowalski for who he really is; a troubled man haunted by death, mistakes and regrets, burdened by guilt and his failure to understand life and truly live it.
“Gran Torino ultimately feels like Eastwood’s last chance to redeem himself, to avow that there’s nothing glorious or meaningful behind killing and bloodshed.
The first part of “Gran Torino is the most fun I’ve had in the movies this year. The last part of the film left me with a strange feeling; a longing for the certainty of a time and a place that only exists in Eastwood’s face. As much as I’d love to see him act again, I can’t imagine a better, more perfect conclusion for Eastwood, the actor, than “Gran Torino.