Typical Clint Eastwood sensibilities infuse the director’s Gran Torino, a somewhat simplistic film content to tell its own isolated story rather than reaching for something greater.
And it tells it well: this story of an elderly widower coming to terms with the influx of Asian immigrants in his suburban neighborhood is often more compelling than it ought to be. Eastwood, in his first acting appearance since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, is as fun to watch here as he’s ever been.
Clint stars as crotchety war veteran Walt Kowalski, a retired widower who spends his days sitting on the porch with his dog and growling at the neighborhood kids to “get off my lawn.”
His own kids, spoiled businessman Mitch (Brian Haley) and wife Karen (Geraldine Hughes), who’ve raised even more spoiled grandchildren, ignore Walt unless it’s his birthday, when they bring gifts of a phone with big, easy-to-see buttons and a brochure for a retirement home.
Next door lives a large family of Hmong immigrants, including two young siblings, shy Thao (Bee Vang) and spunky Sue (Ahney Her), who tries to break through Walt’s gruff barrier and won’t take no for an answer. The local gang tries to initiate Thao into their ranks by having him steal Walt’s pristine 1972 Gran Torino; that doesn’t go too well, with Thao finding himself staring at the barrel of Walt’s rifle.
But instead of animosity between the neighbors, Sue and her family insist Thao pays off his debt by doing work for Walt, who is forced to take on the kid, and teach him to become a man in the process. Walt’s prejudice is eventually broken down, as he finds himself getting to know his Hmong neighbors, and enjoying it.
My only problem with Gran Torino is with the ending – which works, no question – but feels a bit too pat, everything wrapped up as neatly as possible. Some ambiguity would have been appreciated, though that isn’t (usually) Eastwood’s style.
Two years after Eastwood was mostly ignored at awards time with a pair of excellent films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he has been largely ignored again with another pair of excellent films, Changeling and Torino – for my money, each better than any of the 2008 Best Picture Oscar nominees.
Payback, perhaps, for the less-deserving Million Dollar Baby taking the Best Pic award in 2004. An inconsistent (but mostly good) director throughout much of his career, Eastwood, nearing 80, has become the best working US director during the past five years.
As an actor, Eastwood is as iconic an image as they come, and Gran Torino may well be his swan song. Everything we love about that icon is on full, loving display: this is Harry Callahan in suburbia, and he’s a joy to watch.
Clint also wrote, and (quite wonderfully) croons the titular song, with Jamie Cullum, over the closing credits.