If anyone—anyone but Clint Eastwood—had signed Gran Torino, it not only wouldn’t be positioned for awards, it would be dismissed out of hand as ham-handed, clunky and, frankly, amateurish. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Eastwood’s involvement is all there is that makes Gran Torino interesting in the first place. Less than 20 minutes into the film I asked myself, “Is this supposed to be funny?” And while it has things in it that clearly are meant to be funny, these were not the things I was asking about. The film is meant to be profound, and in some ways it is. But for the most part, it plays like the world’s most pretentious drive-in movie.
The film presents Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran. The movie opens with the funeral of Walt’s wife, where we meet the crusty Walt, who seems rather more irritable than even such circumstances would cause. He essentially dislikes everybody: his family, the priest (Christopher Carley, Lions for Lambs), you name it. He literally growls (complete with a little Elvis lip curl) at things that displease him—some of which are understandable. Things are even worse after the funeral service when everyone moves to the house. He dismisses the turnout on the strength of the mourners probably having heard there would be “lots of ham.” (No comment.)
The basic setup is that Walt is a man out of his time. The neighborhood in which he lives has disintegrated to an alarming degree. The original residents have moved away or died, and the houses are now largely occupied by Asians (apparently impoverished Asians with a complete indifference when it comes to property upkeep). Walt snarls and growls at them, but insists on continuing to live in the old neighborhood as the proud owner of his picture-perfect house, going about his daily routine of mowing the lawn, muttering racial slurs, endlessly drinking beer and smoking—with time out for the occasional coughing fit, complete with that old movie staple: tell-tale blood on his handkerchief.
All this changes when the teenage Hmong boy next door, Thao (Bee Vang), gets pressured by his gang-banger cousin to steal Walt’s most treasured possession, his 1972 Gran Torino, in order to prove his worthiness to be a part of the gang. Thao—who appears to be more than a little backwards—fails the test, but the gang won’t leave him alone, which ultimately prompts Walt to threaten to shoot them (“Get off my lawn”) when their attempts annoy him. This causes the neighborhood to fete Walt as a hero—something he doesn’t desire in the least. The family makes Thao own up to his botched attempt at grand-theft auto and work off his debt to Walt. Slowly but surely, Walt comes to care for the boy, as well as his sister, Sue (Ahney Her). He teaches Thao how to swear and hurl racial slurs, and in general how to be a man, even helping him use his newfound vocabulary to get a job. In the process, he also becomes the kids’ unofficial protector—something they need since the gang has no intention of leaving them alone. All of this leads to the movie’s peculiar Christ-complex denouement.
The intent behind it all is to deliver an admirable lesson in racial understanding, but its presentation is even clunkier than the plotting. Trading on Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona—but reducing him to the level of “Hey, you kids get off my lawn”—and then turning him into a kind of Archie Bunker is unwieldy at best. However, it does make for an interesting psychological extension of Eastwood’s twilight-years fixation by demystifying the very kinds of heroes he once helped to define. Whether it makes for very good drama is another matter—in part, because the film presents a relatively deep premise in terms that are simplistic and hackneyed. The penchant for descending into cheap melodrama and ridiculous plotting undermines the depth at every turn, as does the parade-of-set-pieces approach. And the latter causes the film to move in lurches, preventing it from coming across as a flowing narrative.
Much of the fault lies with the screenplay by Nick Schenk (whose credits extend to a TV show called Let’s Bowl), which has little sense of structure, lots of sense of clichés and no ear whatsoever for dialogue. But as director and producer, the buck has to stop at Eastwood, who obviously approved the script and insisted on casting non-actors in key roles. The idea was surely to make the kids “more realistic” in this manner. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make them actors, and instead of attaining realism, it mostly results in distracting amateurishness. Other decisions—like Eastwood “singing” on the ending credits—are simply bizarre.
The sad thing about all this is that there are a handful of powerful moments in the film. Walt’s refusal to talk about what it’s like to kill a man, his subsequent description of it as “goddamn awful” and his self-loathing over getting a medal for “killing some poor kid who just wanted to give up,” offer a look into the movie Gran Torino wanted to be. But it’s not the film that ended up on-screen, nor are these moments indicative of Eastwood’s overall performance, which is too often painfully broad and lacking in the substance these bits suggest.
Nonetheless, the film remains generally entertaining in the limited fashion of a cheesy exploitation flick with a little something on its mind. Its value mostly lies in Eastwood’s deconstruction of the hero motif—which is the justification for grafting the otherwise superfluous La Dame aux Camelias consumption subplot onto the story. An interesting—even fascinating—movie that may be more so because of the very things that keep it from greatness. But that doesn’t make it an artistic success on its own merit. Rated R for language throughout and some violence.