WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: Grizzled widower and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski despairs of his spoilt family and mistrusts his neighbours, members of the Hmong community that has come to dominate the area where he now lives with only his dog Daisy for company. When shy youngster Thao is goaded by a gang into trying to steal Walt’s precious Gran Torino, the sick old man nearly kills him; but as Thao pays penance Walt begins to take the young man and his sister Sue under his wing. Little do they know that the relationship will have devastating consequences for them all.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a wretched old man, an inconvenience to the money-minded family who congregate for his wife’s funeral and a thorn in the side of the young Catholic priest (Christopher Carley) who tries to look out for him, despite the insults he constantly receives for his troubles. A war vet and ex-Ford worker, Walt is pre-disposed to dislike his neighbours, the Hmong who were repatriated after the Vietnam War (they supported the losing side); and when impressionable young man Thao (Bee Vang) is forced by his cousin’s gang to try to steal Walt’s immaculate 1972 Gran Torino, Walt reacts with his customary fury and racist outbursts.
However, Walt saves Thao from being hauled off by the gang and soon after saves his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from a sticky situation, making him a local hero; Walt is showered with food (to which he is more than partial) and gets to know both Sue and Thao, who is made to work for Walt and is later given lessons in life by the relentlessly practical curmudgeon. Walt, however, does not have much life left and when Thao’s problems with the gang escalate, he takes it upon himself to find a solution.
Eastwood has stated that this is his last appearance in front of the camera; if so, it is a fine send-off for one of cinema’s greats. Essentially an exercise in old age vigilantism, Gran Torino provides an uncomfortable but incredibly gripping story as Thao and Sue’s lives become ever more threatened by their hateful cousin’s gang and Walt fights to protect them. More than that, Eastwood’s Walt is a superb and complex character study, a man troubled by the violence of war yet not afraid to use his muscle, hateful on many levels, disappointed in his children and snotty grandkids, yet regretful that he didn’t get to know his sons better.
Importantly, even as he comes to know and even like his next door neighbours, his ingrained racism barely softens: only the frequent reminders of impending death make him reappraise his life with the help of the callow priest. Throughout, the gleaming Gran Torino lurks in the background as a symbol of misplaced effort and love, highlighting Eastwood’s contribution as director. He never makes himself likeable, but by filming himself unflinchingly (there is a brilliant shot of Walt smoking in the dark, his blood pouring down his hands) he makes sure we feel everything Walt feels.
Alongside such a towering performance, Bee Vang and Ahney Her – non-professional actors – do admirably in their roles, Her in particular coming across as self-assured and (importantly) sympathetic in a role which is initially burdened with giving details about the Hmong but which later takes a shocking turn. Though other parts are necessarily limited, Brian Haley is excellent as Walt’s son Mitch, failing to connect with the old man and harassed by the wife into proposing retirement villages. John Carroll Lynch is also very good as the foul-mouthed barber who gives Walt as good as he gets, and who helps to school Thao in the art of being a man. Nick Schenk’s screenplay is poignant, funny and hard, and its morals are simple and direct; perhaps more so than in real life, but the impact of every scene is immediate and raw.
Gran Torino’s simplicity and refusal to become sentimental (a trait that afflicted Million Dollar Baby) is generally a blessing, but also leads to my only criticism of the film. At the very end, the ultimate destination of Walt’s prized car is easily guessed at, and Thao’s troubles are wrapped up rather too neatly to be entirely credible; but this is a small quibble, and one which only very slightly reduced my enjoyment of the film (since the build-up towards the climax is so expertly handled, I thought the climax itself might be…cleverer). If I’m being vague, it’s for a very good reason: even if it’s not quite perfect, Gran Turismo is a film that should be seen and appreciated without too much forewarning. It’s an uncomfortable watch, occasionally, but for every frame that Clint Eastwood is on screen, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.