As a social drama about gangs and racial tension, Gran Torino is terribly awkward – as if director Clint Eastwood had only lately gotten around to seeing Boyz N the Hood. Yet as another one of Eastwood’s meditations on the aging process, the movie is on to something.
Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and recent widower who is the last white holdout in a rapidly changing Michigan neighborhood.
Insular, easily aggravated and downright racist, Walt nonetheless develops a relationship with an Asian teen named Thao (Bee Vang) who lives next door. Pressured by his cousin’s gang, Thao tries to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino. The boy’s family, who is desperately trying to keep him on a straight and narrow path, sentences him to do chores for Walt in order to make amends.
Nick Schenk’s screenplay provides the necessary stepping stones for Walt’s transformation (Thao’s family wears him down with home-cooked meals, which are welcome considering he survives on beef jerky and Pabst). Eastwood overplays Walt’s ire at the start – I’ve seen Frankenstein’s monsters who unintelligibly groan less than this – yet by the time Walt becomes a fiercely protective father figure for Thao, the story had me convinced.
For awhile, Gran Torino resembles nothing more than an average after-school special, especially considering the novice performances given by Vang, as the nearly mute Thao, and Ahney Her, as Thao’s abrasive, Americanized sister.
Yet in other scenes – those of Walt alone, struggling to move furniture in his now empty house, or of Walt suffering indignities during obligatory visits from his uncaring sons – Eastwood gets at something more authentic. The realities of aging – the loss of certain abilities; the encroaching loneliness – come to the forefront in way that’s rarely seen in a Hollywood film.
Eastwood has tackled this subject before, from the masterful Unforgiven to the gimmicky Space Cowboys to Blood Work, a cop thriller that spent more time in the doctor’s office than the precinct. The older Eastwood gets, the more apropos the topic seems.
Part of the fascination of Gran Torino, then, comes from watching Eastwood move. We remember him young – lithe and tanned. Here he’s pale, sinewy and stiff. Walt marches up the stairs of his bungalow ramrod straight. He’d rather die before he installed a wheelchair ramp.
Mortality does come into play in Gran Torino, though I shouldn’t detail how. I’ll only mention that Eastwood teases us with two possibilities – a natural death from failing health or a Dirty Harry-style sayonara, with guns blazing.
The movie eventually finds a third option, one that’s heavy-handed yet still affords its aged auteur a certain kind of dignity. And aging with dignity is what Gran Torino, at its best, is all about.