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  Gran Torino

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley, Brian Howe

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Produced by: Bill Gerber, Robert Lorenz, Clint Eastwood

Written by: Nick Schenk (screenplay & story), Dave Johannson (story)

Distributor: Warner Bros.


     After middling in failed attempts at high art in his 2006 World War II companion-features Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood has quickly renewed himself by returning to the type of picture he does best: the old-fashioned, poignant character-drama. First came Changeling, his riveting kidnapping mystery with a tour de force Angelina Jolie performance. While that film packed a strong punch, it’s tame compared to Gran Torino, a masterwork that engages through well-written buddy-movie bonding, perceptive observations on modern America, and nostalgic nods to Eastwood’s ass-kickin’ Dirty Harry days (he directs and stars). This is a no-frills picture—what you see is what you get—but it’s entertaining and thoughtful in ways that current Hollywood releases rarely are.


     Eastwood’s protagonist is Walt Kowalski, an old widower whose sole pleasures are drinking beer, gnawing on beef jerky, and admiring his 1972 Gran Torino. Walt, a Korean War vet and lifetime auto-plant worker, is the product of a bygone America, watching his once-prospering Michigan neighborhood become the hostage of Hmong and Latino gangs. There is no one to console him as his surroundings change, either: he cannot relate to his son’s progressive family, which comes equipped with an eco-sensitive SUV and a pierced teenage daughter, or his Church’s young minister. While Walt may indeed be a racist old coot, those of us who are weary of moral-decline in America will instantly relate to his contempt for the growingly progressive world around him. The character’s attitude—a mix of traditional Eastwood gusto and conservative nostalgia—forges a strong bond with the audience from the get-go.


     The story takes off when Walt one night stops a fight in his Hmong-immigrant neighbors’ front-yard, shotgun in hand. The brawl was caused by teenager Thao’s (Bee Vang) reluctance to join his cousin’s gang after failing his initiation: stealing Walt’s prized car. Thao’s family tries to repay Walt for his good deed with food and gifts despite Walt’s nasty retort that he was just trying to keep hoodlums off his lawn. Walt wants nothing to do with the “gooks” but is eventually forced to accept Thao’s traditionalist mother’s insistence that Thao work for him as a sign of good faith to apologize for the fight and the car-jacking attempt. He and the boy form an unlikely bond, a conventional storytelling device that could’ve been boring and ineffective in lesser hands but proves highly involving in Eastwood’s. Walt’s relationship with Thao and his family provides insight on the roles of traditional values and race-relations in America—Thao is perceptive to Walt’s old-fashioned worldview because it is similar to that of his own elders, while Walt in turn learns to appreciate his foreign neighbors—and also creates involving drama as Walt vies to stop Thao’s cousin’s violent gang from disrupting the neighborhood ever again.


     Eastwood seamlessly intersperses the different tones and facets of his story. Walt’s outrageously hostile attitude towards nearly everything and everyone in the first two acts is presented as comedy, which works surprisingly well in fostering the viewer’s bond with the character because his sentiments, while often bigoted and condemnable, show his isolation and need for valuable human relationships. Meanwhile, the movie gains most of its emotional heft through long, conversational passages that capture Walt’s life in old age. These are ambitiously, unapologetically straightforward and take the necessary time that mainstream pictures rarely allow themselves nowadays. And I haven’t yet mentioned the climactic, vengeance-laden scenes in which Walt attempts to settle the score with the neighborhood gang in the name of the becoming young man he has befriended—the film’s source of external plot progression.


      While Gran Torino is layered and complex, the movie’s overriding accessibility is part of its greatness. Eastwood has achieved a work of considerable breadth, but it never feels pretentious as it moves: the story is direct and effective. As I said in the opening of this review, the director’s approach represents old-fashioned moviemaking at its best, inviting thought and discussion through gracefully simple staging. And let’s not even get started on just how remarkable Eastwood’s lead performance—likely his last—is, its strong narrative and thematic support notwithstanding. Eastwood deserves Oscar-recognition on multiple levels, as does Gran Torino on the whole. It’s one of the best pictures of the year.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.17.2008

Screened on: 12.12.2008 at the Mann Criterion 6 in Santa Monica, CA.


Gran Torino is rated R and runs 116 minutes.

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