For what it has been said will be his last ever appearance in front of the camera, Clint Eastwood has chosen a role that cleverly plays on our familiarity with his long, impressive career. Gran Torino casts a complex and nuanced look at the themes with which he has so often been linked with — American identity, violence and masculinity.
Eastwood (who also directs) plays Walt Kowalski, a newly-widowed Korean war vet who’s apparently set on spending his retirement from the Ford plant sitting alone on his front porch, growling to himself about the state of his suburban Detroit neighbourhood (run down, nothing but immigrants) and the state of his country (disrespectful youth, self-centred and materialistic adults).
Walt has a line in racist insults that must outrun the vocabulary of even the most studious member of the BNP, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Eastwood pulling off this kind of character. We warm to the racist old curmudgeon, of course, because we just know that underneath the tough, gun-toting exterior he’s just a big softie.
When Walt meets his neighbours, a family of Hmong (a South-East Asian minority) immigrants — or Gooks, as Mr. Sensitivity prefers — a chain of events is begun that allows that heart of gold to shine through. Upon catching the shy, insecure boy from next door in his garage one night, attempting to steal his 1972 Gran Torino as part of a forced initiation into one of the local gangs, this most inauspicious of beginnings leads to an unlikely friendship between the old man, the boy, Thao, and his independent and feisty sister, Sue, in which Walt’s prejudices are challenged and his mind opened. It’s a set-up that could have been corny and obvious, but isn’t, thanks to a sparkling and often very witty script that rounds out every character, even the most minor, with shades of light and dark that were almost entirely absent in Eastwood’s previous directorial outing, Changeling.
Walt takes Thao under his wing, attempting to instil in him all the rules of the old American way, but as the film progresses it slowly becomes evident that the Walt’s old macho, patriotic attitude simply doesn’t fit the new America any more – and that, perhaps, it never truly solved anything in the first place. The more involved that Walt gets in Thao and Sue’s world, the more he’s drawn into the ethnic gang rivalry that blights his new friends’ lives, and the meeting of the two Americas reaches its poignant climax.
This film’s greatest strength is the subtly and open-mindedness with which it treats its themes, and big ones at that — race, identity, violence, life and death.
There’s a sense of something lost, but not without a critique of America’s past and its hypocrisies. There’s some promise in the next generation of new Americans, but in the context of a society riven by racism, hopelessness and aggression.
Gran Torino provides no easy answers, but it provides a wise, understated and fitting performance with which Eastwood has chosen to end a truly great acting career.