Status: In theaters (in limited release since 12/12/08, opened wide 1/9/09)
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Nick Schenk
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley
I’ve heard a lot of people describe Gran Torino as a sort of final Dirty Harry chapter, but I think that’s far too crude of a view to take. Sure, both Inspector Callahan and Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) are “badasses,” but there’s different levels of badass, and these two characters do not share one. In the earlier role (appearing in no fewer than five films), Eastwood played a duty-driven stoic who lived only to bring major criminals to justice. Here, his Kowalski is a grizzled veteran who has recently buried his wife and seems like he’s just waiting for his turn.
Walt Kowalski is so grizzled, in fact, it’s comical—and unintentionally so. If all I told you was that this was a movie about an old guy who didn’t like the riff-raff in his neighborhood, you’d probably jokingly guess that he at some point recites the old cliched line, “Get off my lawn!” Unfortunately, you’d be right… twice. And yes, it’s supposed to play completely seriously. His delivery—not just of this line, but of every grizzled, growly line throughout the movie—is like a parody of Christian Bale’s exaggerated growl in The Dark Knight (one that I thought already played like a parody to begin with). The vast majority of Eastwood’s lines, in fact, will elicit more laughter at than reverence in his character.
Added to the over-the-top delivery is Kowalski’s over-the-top behavior, his constant scowling and growling under his breath at his immigrant neighbors, and his overt racism. He throws every racial epithet imaginable—with a single, glaring exception—for both Asians and blacks, and he does so regularly and freely. This too is over the top and treads more into the realm of comedic parody than it does serious depiction. And yet, despite all of this, Walt Kowalski is a character we find ourselves caring about and rooting for. We find, inevitably, that he has the ability to connect with his neighbors, relocated Hmong refugees from the war in Vietnam. He does, of course, have a soft side, and we see it show through ever so tentatively as the story unfolds.
There are two young neighbors in particular that Walt ends up spending a lot of time with, Sue and Thao (Ahney Her and Bee Vang). Sue serves, in an amateurish screenwriting ploy, as the character who explains everything for the audience: she tells Walt who the Hmong are and why they’ve emigrated to eastern Michigan, she explains her brother’s personality and the troubles he’s found himself in, and she explains her family’s traditions in a way that both the audience and her next door neighbor can understand. Both of these characters are played by first-time actors, and unfortunately this fact is painfully obvious. I place as much blame on Eastwood, as the director, as I do on the kids playing these roles, but the bottom line is that their performances are groan-inducingly poor, to the point that some of their scenes—particularly those featuring Thao attempting to interact with Walt—are borderline unwatchable.
Every aspect of this film, in fact, is handled in a dichotomous balance of cringe-worthy displays of amateur-level filmmaking, mixed with genuine thoughtfulness and emotion. For instance, Walt has a tenuous (at best) relationship with his wife’s pastor (Christopher Carley), and the two engage in some philosophical disagreements that would be realistically interesting give-and-take—particularly having to do with their focus on how one’s religious affinity often grows stronger late in life—if only the dialogue itself weren’t so poorly written and comically delivered. What should be heated exchanges play instead like boring recitations of teenage philosophy. And yet, somehow, the film manages to overcome the poorly-written dialogue, rising above to the overall scope of the story itself. This is true of every plot line, in fact: the story is good, the resolution fulfilling, but the details muddled and not handled very well.
Gran Torino is a film that is made much more enjoyable if you’re able to distance yourself from the specifics of its devices. Walt’s demeanor and overall lot is a good basis for a character, if you can get past Eastwood’s dialogue and delivery without laughing at it. His relationship with Thao is touching if you can ignore the specifics of their discussions. His relationship with his family in the absence of his recently diseased wife is bitter and real, if you ignore the caricature-level roles themselves (especially his granddaughter, who comes across as over the top even in a film that relies solely on over-the-top portrayals). Walt’s progression is intriguing and heartfelt, if you take a step back and view it as a parable while ignoring the specifics of how he arrives where he does. And the film’s resolution, even while overly simplistic and a bit too contrived, is nonetheless engrossing and thoroughly emotional.
Like The Wrestler, there is a titular original song that plays over the end credits that summarizes the overall mood of the movie itself to a T. This one, though—written by Eastwood, his son Kyle, British pop and jazz singer Jamie Collum, and composer Michael Stevens—sung in the film by Eastwood himself, is the perfect way to summarize this heartfelt tale. In the end, of course, that’s what it is, execution be damned: a heartfelt tale of an old retiree coming to terms with who he is, what he believes, and those with whom he inhabits the world, and what meaning he wants to get out of all of it. Would that every film could deal with such issues… although it’d be nice if they could be handled more maturely and more professionally.