So, this is supposedly Clint Eastwood’s swan song as an actor. Of course, he said the same thing after his Oscar winning film “Million Dollar Baby,” so this might just be a publicity stunt designed to get the film a bigger audience. Wasn’t this the same guy who said after winning the Best Director Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby” that he was “just a kid?” Age certainly hasn’t taken Eastwood’s ability as a director, and it adds to his work as an actor. This is certainly the case with his first starring role in several years in “Gran Torino.” As disgruntled Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, he gives a great performance that has a bit of Dirty Harry, a bit of Will Muny from “Unforgiven,” some of Frankie Dunn from “Million Dollar Baby,” and that burning glare that is still stuck in my memory from when I first saw “City Heat.” That one was practically the only Clint Eastwood that I could see as a kid, and it had a lot of bad language for a PG rated movie.
Anyway, “Gran Torino” starts with Walt at his wife’s funeral, and with him staring disdainfully at his grandkids who are not even trying to take any of this seriously. His teenage granddaughter is more interested in texting her friends than listening to the priest giving his sermon. Of course, this may have to with the fact that Walt Kowalski is not the most likable of people to put it mildly. At the reception after the funeral, he proves to be cold and distant from just about everyone close to him, and he’s quite dismissive to his grown kids who want to help him. Everyone’s helping him, and he treats it like it’s an insult.
Soon after, he inadvertently becomes involved in the affairs of the Hmong family living next door when an Asian gang tries to kidnap the youngest son named Thao in an attempt to initiate him into their gang. When a fight breaks out and it spreads to his lawn, Walt comes out with his rifle and puts an end to the altercation quickly. Knowing Walt, he just wants peace and quiet, but the Hmong family sees him as a hero and start praising him with gifts of food and flowers which drives him nuts, but from there he builds a kinship with the family which brings the best and some of the worst out of him.
At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story in that it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director in that his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling that brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close knit Asian family that is anything but you average type of family, and he gets deep into their culture and of the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing Walt hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.
However, the fact that the family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap that comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist that Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any of the Hmong family would keep him around for 5 minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such an unpolitically character as this and still make you sympathize with him and follow him wherever he goes. There may be a few actors that are possibilities, but none comes to mind as quickly. Eastwood gives the character of Walt Kowalski both a toughness and vulnerability that is tougher to achieve than you would think. To say that this is a part that Clint could just walk through would be an insult to what he manages to accomplish here. In my book, his role in this movie is more than worthy of an Oscar nomination.
In the youth obsessed town of Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life that has experienced so much of everything like war, love, and heartache. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of black guys who are messing with Sue, a member of the Hmong family next door, and her white boyfriend. Clint comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult just about everyone around him. He calls the white boy there a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend that he’s black (that got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it). Clint then delivers a line that would sound ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:
“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”
Watching that, I felt more than convinced that only Clint can sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.
The more I think of Clint’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi dimensional it appears to be, and Eastwood nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past that haunt him to this very day, of the despair he experiences the pain of the Hmong family in their worst moments, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt Kowalski can seem like a hateful son of a bitch, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity that illustrates the kind of person he is.
By casting unknown actors as the members of the Hmong family, Eastwood the director gives the movie an even stronger authenticity of feeling to where you feel like you have known these people for a long time. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor, the teenage daughter of the next door family. She is a real kick to watch throughout the film as comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get Walt to come over to the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions that there is beer. Ahney gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Ahney Her steals every scene she has in the movie.
Another terrific performance in the movie comes from Bee Vang who plays Thao Vang Lor, the young boy of the family who (in a matter of speaking) befriends Walt. In the movie, the local Asian gang makes him try to steal Walt’s prized Ford Gran Torino which he keeps polishing every day, making it look brand spanking new. This of course pisses off Walt to no end, but Thao’s family makes him work for Walt to pay off his debt. Walt doesn’t hesitate in calling Thao, but later finds ways to toughen him up and getting him to stand up for himself in rather unusual ways.
As dark as the movie seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor to it that makes the movie all the more enjoyable. Another great moment in the movie has Walt teaching Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to talk like a man is a hilarious moment in how unpolitically correct he gets Thao to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.
The last half of the movie turns bleak as the Hmong family deals with devastating events that threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let the movie descend into a world of manipulation, endless preaching, and sentimentality. You think you know where the movie is heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson & Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear that this is a redemption piece, but the way that Walt achieves his redemption in a way that is not what you expect and quite shocking at the same time.
The title of the movie refers of course to Walt’s prized possession, his 1972 Ford Gran Torino. The car itself seems to represent a rite of passage for both Walt and Thao, and how they feel about the car informs the evolution of their character throughout the film. Walt’s granddaughter is the first one to discover the car and asks Walt if she can have the car when he dies. Now if that doesn’t show you the kind of character she has, nothing will. The car is not simply an object to be shown off, but a piece of history that is deserving of respect. This shows as we see Thao gain more respect for himself and more confidence in what he does. It’s the kind of car that your dad will say that you need to earn the right to drive. Basically, that means you will be lucky to drive it all in your lifetime.
“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie that I think really brings out the best in Clint Eastwood both as an actor and as a director. I am convinced that had this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Clint in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie instead of the other way around. He gives the movie a strong sense of reality that draws you into the story right away, and gives it a freshness that almost makes you forget that we have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood the director seems to be releasing a new movie every other week, and he continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad that I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle that again.
If this is to really be Clint Eastwood’s last movie as an actor, he gives himself a great tribute to all the tough guys he has played throughout his career. It also shows that he was out to challenge himself as an actor here as he managed to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic. Is it the best role of his career? Maybe not, but it is certainly one of the best of his long career, and one that shows that he is a greater actor than many people give him credit for. Hopefully, an Oscar nomination will be bestowed on his performance here, and not just because he says it’s his last one. Only time can tell about that.
And if the Academy does fail to nominate Eastwood, they better make sure to stay off his lawn!