16 January 2009
"Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have (messed) with? That's me."
Clint Eastwood, as the central character of Gran Torino, Korean war veteran/retired Ford worker/widower Walt Kowalski, snarls that warning to a trio of thugs menacing his neighbor, a friendly Hmong teenager named Sue (Ahney Her), but he might as well wear it around his neck on a sign for all to see.
Whether you're staring at him down the barrel of a shotgun or just happen to stray too close to his property as he sits on his front porch, cigarette in hand, cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon and trusty yellow Lab at his feet, your day will be considerably more pleasant if you avoid him altogether—especially if you're one of the gangbangers who have all but taken over his Detroit neighborhood. They're everywhere—gangs of black, Latino or Hmong youths. It's hard on a bigoted old man like Walt.
The Hmong, a people originally from the mountains of southeast Asia, irk him the most; they are his next-door neighbors and physically resemble the people he fought and killed in Korea. The horrors he saw—and perpetrated—during that war have haunted him ever since, channeled into and buried under a sea of disgust and contempt not limited to those of differing ethnicities. One of his sons (Brian Haley) committed the unpardonable sin of driving a foreign car; we don't know what the other (Brian Howe) did and Walt might not either. His grandchildren are a disgrace to him—especially teenaged Ashley (Dream Walker), who can't tear herself away from her cell phone even during her grandmother's funeral and later questions Walt about who will receive his prized 1972 Gran Torino when he dies. It is the car that brings Walt together with young Thao (Bee Vang) and the rest of his Hmong neighbors.
Walt also spurns at every opportunity the young Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt's wife he would get him to come to confession. For much of the movie, it is hard to tell if Walt's derision is directed at the man or his faith. Janovich, though, understands Walt—or "Mr. Kowalski," as Walt insists he call him—better than most. "Sounds like you know a lot more about death than you do living," the priest observes after their first talk of any length.
One night, Walt catches Thao breaking into his garage, sent there by his cousin Spider (Doua Moua) to steal it as his gang initiation. When Thao fails and the subsequent beating spills over onto Walt's property, he emerges from his house, shotgun in hand, growling this instantly iconic line: "Get off my lawn."
Walt's motivation is selfish—if you don't have permission to be on his lawn, you stay off of it—but he becomes a hero in his neighborhood, his neighbors showering him with food and gifts. After he comes to the aid of Thao's sister, Sue, talks to her and finds her to be a charming, intelligent young woman—even more so in contrast to his granddaughter—he accepts an invitation to a gathering at her home. Though he still calls Thao "toad" and the whole lot of the Hmong names I will not repeat here, he starts to see them as individuals. Walt's respect for Thao grows when the boy's family forces him to work for the old man to make amends for his attempted car heist.
Eastwood, acting for the first time since Million Dollar Baby (2004), is at his best, still employing his legendary tough-guy persona (think of him as "Dirty Walt") but unafraid to act his age—a cough that appears in the opening scene is a symptom of more than a cold; Thao escapes from the garage because Walt trips. At 78, Eastwood's face is weathered, like a mountain standing in defiance of the harsh elements. So much strength remains in him that he does not even need a gun to intimidate; a point-and-shoot gesture with his thumb and forefinger gets the job done.
The role calls for a versatile performer and Eastwood, though he is seldom recognized for it, is exactly that. Stretches of the movie play as a comedy before a dramatic shift in tone (a la Million Dollar Baby).
As Eastwood's movies so often do, Gran Torino starts as one thing, then becomes something else entirely. Eastwood, working from a screenplay by Nick Schenk, finds deep meaning when lesser filmmakers would provide only thrills or sentiment. And he does it in such an unassuming, workmanlike way—his manner of directing is not unlike his acting style. Given who Walt is, his past, his environment, the people around him, he makes the only logical decisions he can and the movie comes to an appropriate, satisfying conclusion.
Though Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down as a filmmaker (an untitled project starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela is scheduled for a late-2009 release), there have been rumblings of Gran Torino being his last acting role. It is a fitting end if that is true. If not, the movies will be better for it.
Gran Torino is not quite on the level of Eastwood's finest work (which includes Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), but it is one of 2008's best movies.
(Rated R for language throughout, and some violence. 116 minutes.)