(2008)3.5Jason BuchananThe first time we see Walt Kowalski, Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino, he looks like he's about to explode -- literally -- as in spontaneously combust. Standing at his wife's funeral and growling to himself as his family files in, he looks as if he could go nuclear at any given second, like he might take off sprinting through the pews, snapping as many necks as possible in a grim attempt to ensure that his recently deceased wife isn't lonely in the afterlife. The impression that his character makes is direct and unmistakable, and the whispered conversation that takes place between his two sons as they ponder what will become of the rancorous war veteran ensures that we know exactly where he's at in life before the end of the first scene. It's plain to see that Walt has precious little tolerance for foolishness, and now that he's alone, there's no buffer between his bitterness and the outside world.
Walt Kowalski is a Korean War veteran who worked the assembly lines in Detroit after returning home from the war, bottling his demons up tight and secure as he got married, started a family, and settled down in a nice house. But over the years, Walt's close-knit community gradually began to change, and as his neighbors all died or moved away, their homes were purchased by low-income families and immigrants, the latter of which were largely Hmong families from Vietnam, seeking to escape persecution for aiding American forces during the war. His next-door neighbors are just such a family, and Walt begrudges them not only for being "zipperheads" and "yammering gooks," but even more so for the fact that their dilapidated, ill-maintained home sits directly adjacent to his perfectly manicured lawn. He's not a very likeable guy, though he largely keeps to himself until one night when he notices someone with a flashlight snooping around in his garage. Assuming the worst, Walt grabs his M-1 rifle and heads down to investigate. Once inside, he confronts bumbling would-be thief Thao (Bee Vang), who has been pressured into stealing Walt's vintage Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation rite. But Thao is hardly the gangbanger type; he lives in the house next door, and he's more apt to be caught doing the dishes or gardening rather than roaming the streets looking for trouble. Later, when the gang returns to give Thao a second chance at proving his manhood, the conflict quickly spills over into Walt's yard, prompting the curmudgeon next door to come barreling down the front porch, rifle in hand and ready for action. As a result, the gangsters beat a hasty retreat, and Thao's family begins showering Walt with gifts as a means of thanking him for keeping the boy from falling in with a dangerous crowd. Little does Walt realize that his instinctive action has laid the groundwork for an unanticipated new chapter of his life, a chapter that will teach him not only the true meaning of tolerance, but the value of finally making peace with his past, and letting go of the death that has haunted him ever since returning home from the war.
In those early scenes where Walt glares spitefully at the house next door, trading barely audible barbs with the elderly Hmong grandmother affixed to the front porch, the character's overt racism and grizzled rage are played to almost comic effect. It's in these scenes that Eastwood plays it smart, too, by subtly highlighting the things that Walt has in common with his neighbors (such as a shot of the wake dinner at Walt's that will later be echoed when he ventures into the neighbor's house for the first time), yet fails to notice while looking through the blinders of bigotry. Walt may be prejudiced and short-fused, yet, despite his outward flaws, he's essentially a decent, hardworking man whose old-school views of race, honor, and dignity are hopelessly out of step with the contemporary era of political correctness. Eastwood realizes that by getting his audience to laugh at Walt, he also opens a door for them to try and better understand the character. We get an early glimpse of Walt's inherent good nature when, after happening across Thao's strong-willed sister Sue's (Ahney Her) attempt to fend of the advances of some intimidating street thugs, he immediately comes to her rescue. The conversation they share, as Walt drives his thankful passenger home, reveals a lot about both the would-be victim and her grouchy savior, without ever feeling like exposition. It's around this point in the film that Walt becomes something more than just a caricature, and begins to take on actual dimension as a sympathetic character whose outlook on life isn't as simple as his off-putting rhetoric may suggest. The moment serves as a catalyst for a more open dialogue between the disagreeable neighbors, and affords Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk the opportunity to examine how Walt may have more in common with his immigrant neighbors than he does with his own flesh and blood. It makes for an interesting dynamic as Thao crosses the lawn to make amends for causing his curmudgeonly neighbor so much trouble, and as the focus shifts from Walt's prejudice to his attempt to "man up" the feminized teen and come to terms with the atrocities he committed in Korea, we begin to gain greater insight into the complications that can sometimes come with living in a more culturally diverse society.
If this truly turns out to be Eastwood's final onscreen role -- as he's frequently claimed in interviews -- it seems like a suitable exit for the seasoned screen icon. The character of Walt Kowalski seems like something of an amalgam of Eastwood's most memorable characters -- from the taciturn Man With No Name to hotheaded Dirty Harry, straight through to his tormented former gunslinger from Unforgiven. It will no doubt be a fairly monumental loss to the world of cinema should Eastwood deliver on his promise never to act again, though at this point, his onscreen signature as a director is nearly as recognizable as his own weatherworn mug. Over the years, his skills as a visual storyteller have sharpened to a fine point, and Gran Torino does have the feel of a swan song, not only due to the specifics of Eastwood's character, but also for the simple fact that the film itself just feels flawlessly constructed. Every action in the film has a consequence, and all of the main players have a pivotal role in affecting the development of the story. For all these reasons, Gran Torino will have a definite appeal for longtime fans of both Eastwood the actor, and Eastwood the director.
A racist Korean War veteran living in a crime-ridden Detroit neighborhood is forced to confront his own lingering prejudice when a troubled Hmong teen from his neighborhood attempts to steal his prized Gran Torino. Decades after the Korean War has ended, ageing veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is still haunted by the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield. The two objects that matter most to Kowalski in life are the classic Gran Torino that represents his happier days working in a Ford assembly plant, and the M-1 rifle that saved his life countless times during combat. When Kowalski's teenage neighbor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal his Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation rite, the old man manages to catch the aspiring thief at the business end of his well-maintained semi-automatic rifle. Later, due to the pride of the Asian group, the boy is forced to return to Kowalski's house and perform an act of penance. Despite the fact that Kowalski wants nothing to do with the young troublemaker, he realizes that the quickest way out of the situation is to simply cooperate. In an effort to set the teen on the right path in life and toughen him up, the reluctant vet sets him up with an old crony who now works in construction. In the process, Kowalski discovers that the only way to lay his many painful memories to rest is to finally face his own blinding prejudice head-on.