Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Nick Schenk
Starring: Clint Eastwood
Released: 2008 / Genre: Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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Has Clint Eastwood ever not looked grizzled and aged? Ever since I came across A Fistful of Dollars the actor has appeared weathered with the time honoured scars of worldly adventure – usually with a gun in hand. As Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood could not be more seasoned. Battle-weary Walt is a veteran of Korea who has set his sights on a more peaceful end to a life that has obviously seen more than its fair share of sorrow. The film begins with the passing of Walt’s wife, a seemingly sombre beginning to his story but an event that fails to outwardly change Walt’s steely emotion. Death seems to have lost its importance, it is just another matter-of-fact stage of life. In effect, Walt has seen it all before.
Curiously, Walt’s family – his son and his granddaughter in particular – appear more worried about what they will gain from the death than the death itself. Indeed, Walt’s granddaughter has the temerity to question Walt over his 1972 Gran Torino car and who might receive it when he kicks the bucket. Walt says himself, when he accepts an invitation to dine at his Hmong neighbour’s home, that he has more in common with immigrants than he does with his own family. It is clear that Walt has shut his emotive side down, probably at the expense of his relationship to his now deceased wife and most certainly to the detriment of his relationship to his son. He allows his feelings to surface only when speaking to dog Daisy, when attending to his beloved Gran Torino, or when spouting racist abuse at his foreign neighbours.
But that is all about to change when he forms an unlikely friendship with Thao (Bee Vang), the shy, reserved son of the Hmong family next door. The pair first meet when Thao tries to steal Walt’s car as part of an initiation into a local gang. Thao wants no part of the gang but they won’t leave him alone. Walt begins to question his own prejudices after helping the family repel the gang one night. He is surprised and enamoured by their hospitality, the warm-hearted persistence of daughter Sue (Ayney Her) to embrace Hmong tradition, and the vulnerable innocence of Thao. He takes the young boy under his wing, helping him to find a job and encouraging the almost mute young man to express himself. In one of the best scenes in the film, Walt shows Thao how to talk like a man during a trip to the local barbers.
The genius of Gran Torino is how Clint Eastwood manages to allow this obscure friendship to emerge without the usual clichés (‘they’re people too’) to diminish the honesty that is evident. Walt’s nationalism never goes away, and his racist remarks are made without any concern given to who might be offended. Indeed, Eastwood doesn’t let Walt’s ugly side dissipate for a minute. But what was a verbal attack at the beginning becomes an old man’s ingrained tradition by the end. Much like the Hmong people’s traditions – the provision of food as a thank you, laughing in the face of a telling off, and being offended if a helping hand is not welcome. Walt is so used to an ‘us and them’ mentality he is simply stuck in his ways. But what Eastwood does so beautifully – as an actor and as a director – is allow that verbal prejudice to lose its substance. No longer are Walt’s words said in anger, they are, in effect, backhanded affection. This is highlighted by the nationalist jousting of Walt’s relationship to a Irish construction manager (“Hey Kennedy, you drunken Irish goon.”), his Italian barber (“How you doing Martin, you crazy Italian prick!”) and vice-versa (“Help yourself, Walt. You dumb Polack.”). Could it be that what was once a prejudice based simply on the colour of someone’s skin is now little more than friendly banter. Skin colour is not an issue amongst Walt’s European friends as they are as white as he. When Walt introduces Thao to these men, helps him get a job, teaches him what tools he needs on a building site, and tries to improve his stature as a growing yet reserved young man, he is welcoming him into his way of life. Now Thao is just one of the gang. While Walt’s verbal eccentricities have not changed, his mindset has.
And because of this Gran Torino is a unique, modern look at multiculturalism which plays well to the sensibilities in both America and the UK. In many ways, Eastwood depicts the cultural quagmire as a clash of tradition. His traditions against theirs. His very American standing is depicted quite straightforwardly when he admits anger at his son for buying a foreign car. He is also angered by the benign ways of his Hmong neighbours – they give him food as thanks when he wants to be left alone, and is offered Thao for manual labour as repayment for trying to steal his car. In the same way, he angers his neighbours by tapping a young child on the head, an act that goes against the traditions of the Hmong people because of their belief in a person’s spirit being contained in the head. Through Walt’s friendship with Thao and his sister Sue, a mutual respect blossoms that betrays the old widower’s aged view that the foreigners next door pose a threat.
The reason the film comes together so well is thanks to the talent of Eastwood both in front of and behind the camera. He is a perfect fit for Walt Kowalski, the scars of life written across a face flushed with a million stories, the gravel tones of a voice disrupted by time, the piercing eyes of an old timer who doesn’t miss a beat, and muscular physique of a man who can still hold his own. Eastwood allows Walt no sense of vulnerability but he lets you into the character because of Walt’s underlying regret and the fact he still has time to make amends for his perceived flaws. Eastwood brings it all together with a dramatic, moving, and at times amusing, character study of two disparate characters separated by age and upbringing but united in their need for each other at a significant time in their lives.
The film also benefits from a powerful, brilliantly conceived, expertly executed ending that is as surprising as it is touching. For my money, this is Clint Eastwood’s greatest directorial achievement (which is why I placed at number one in my top 10 films of 2008, and number nine in my top 10 films of the 2000s) and one of his finest performances. Gran Torino is not only one of the decade’s best films, it is also one its most important.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews