Gran Torino Movie Review

R, 116 min, 2008

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Nick Schenk (screenplay), Dave Johannson (story) & Nick Schenk (story)
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino could be taken a number of ways: Is it a treatise on modern American race relations? Is it a violent melodrama in which one man must stand up to the growing throng of gang violence? Or is it a coming of age tale of sorts for both a young teen and a bitter old man? It could be seen as all of the above; however, it’s also frustrating, contrived, emotionally manipulative and wildly uneven – and sometimes kind of wonderful.

We first meet Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) at his wife’s funeral, his ungrateful children and grandchildren looking put upon in the background; why should they even have to sit in the same church with this hateful old man? He growls and sneers at his granddaughter the whole time because she has a belly-button piercing; he’s simply of another generation. Walt is a retired Ford factory worker who insists on keeping himself busy around the house and neighborhood by fixing things, mowing his own lawn, and maintaining the restoration of his 70′s Gran Torino. Walt is the lone Caucasian living in a Hmong (Asian mountain people from Laos and Cambodia, we learn, among other countries) neighborhood in suburban Detroit.

One day, the kid next door, Thao (Bee Vang), gets roped into attempting to steal the car for his wangsta cousin and his friends, and just about gets caught by Walt, who keeps a loaded rifle in his garage. When Thao’s cousin and friends attempt payback for failing at his “initiation,” Walt intervenes and is deemed a hero to the community for standing up to the criminal element. Walt “ain’t no hero,” however, but rather a misanthropic and not a little bit racist old man who fought in Korea, hates anyone who isn’t white (and certain white people as well), and who resents Thao for trying to steal his car. Soon, at the insistance of Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her), Walt is allowing Thao to make it up to him by doing chores around the house and neighborhood, all the while spewing racist nicknames and incredibly ignorant cliches at his Korean neighbors.

But it can’t be that simple, right? Walt must “have a past.” Something he “can’t talk about,” despite the pleadings of the well-intentioned young priest (Christopher Carley) who promised Walt’s wife he’d look out for him, and encourages him to confess for the first time in many years. Will Walt discover that we’re all basically the same? Will he discover that he has more in common with his Korean neighbors than he does with his own family? Can you say “of course”?

Clint Eastwood is gradually, bit by bit, making the transition from an actor who I can tolerate but who never really does much for me, to one of my favorite directors. Consider these titles: Changeling (also 2008), Flags of Our Fathersand Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Mystic River (2003), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Absolute Power (both 1997), A Perfect World (1993) and Unforgiven (1992), and many others going back to his powerful debut thriller Play Misty for Me (1971).

With this film, I think the idea was a bit obvious and the results a tiny bit muddled; the potential for awfulness is peeking through the prestige-picture sheen a bit here. The technical construction of this film feels a bit rushed (as did the trailers); the cinematography by veteran Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern wavers between the shadow-filled, solid compositions we’ve come to associate with Eastwood’s work, to dodgy, hand-held, would-be grit that feels off to me, and the editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach does it no favors (especially in a scene on the Korean family’s lawn).

The original screenplay by Nick Schenk (from a story co-conceived with Dave Johannson) is well-intentioned, I think, but tries too hard; it could’ve withstood another couple of rewrites. The best performance in the film is by Eastwood, who is pretty much one-note, but oddly sympathetic; he says terrible things, not without a scintilla of darkly-tinted humor (I liked a rather unrealistic scene with Thao and John Carroll Lynch as Walt’s barber), and you find yourself sort of liking him by the end. Although I had my reservations in the early going, I think that Ahney Her is fresh-faced, lovely and pretty good as Sue, but Bee Vang is a first-timer – and it shows – as Thao. They try a bit too hard at times (perhaps because the script calls for it), but they’re young and inexperienced and may learn in time.

What might surprise people given the seriousness of the trailer, which at first looks like a typical fall awards-bait Eastwood project only to give way to pseudo-Dirty Harry-style implications of violence, is that the film is sometimes very funny; I got the impression the audience was laughing more at the anachronism of hearing Eastwood stretch to find racist remarks to make than at anything actually being truly amusing.

Ultimately, this is a film that seemingly meanders for its first half, reveals itself to be pretty carefully plotted and obvious, veers wildly all over the map, and doesn’t quite live up to the level of previous Eastwood films.

Note: Upon seeing the film a second time, I admired it a bit more, though many of the sentiments from my original review still stand.

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