by William Casper
Imagine, if you will, Dirty Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s iconic 1970s, magnum 45 wielding cop, had never been a cop at all but rather a Detroit auto worker, and you’ll get some idea of the character of bigoted Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski. Recently widowed, barely on speaking terms with his two sons and their families, Walt lives a solitary life in the kind of neighborhood that autoworkers once upon a time aspired to but are now run-down and racially charged.
Into this loveless, empty life (unless you count his dog) come the Vang Lors, a Hmong family who move in next door to Walt and irritate him intensely with their very existence. As Walt stands on his porch, the stars and stripes proudly fluttering behind him, he literally growls with disgust as the extended Asian family moves in. His irritation turns to anger when he catches the son of the family, Thao (well played by Bee Vang) trying to steal Walt’s pride and joy—a pristine 1972 Gran Torino car, a symbol of times past that gives the film its title. The fatherless Thao was stealing the car as part of an initiation to a local gang. When Walt chases the same gang off his lawn with his old service rifle, he becomes something of a hero within the Hmong community. As a result, in addition to copious amounts of food—food that he reluctantly gets a taste for—he is given Thao to work for him for two weeks. As Thao is pretty useless at everything he attempts it falls to Walt to take the young man under his wing.
And so the bonding begins. Thao’s lack of a father and any male role model that doesn’t happen to be in a street gang makes Walt an obvious surrogate. Whether Walt is a role model you’d wish on anyone is debatable but slowly, very slowly, Thao starts to bring something out in the old man, you wouldn’t call it tenderness but there is a definite sense of Walt’s heart beginning to thaw. Thao’s feisty sister Sue, beautifully realized by Ahney Her, who teases and cajoles Walt in a way he clearly relishes, helps the bonding process. While Walt slowly gets closer to the Vang Lors he has a parallel relationship with the local, fresh faced priest (Walt’s wife was a regular church-goer) that in its own way is as touching as Walt and Thao’s. Walt’s venom towards the young priest is so heartfelt and consistent we are surprised, and pleased, the abused man of the cloth doesn’t give up and walk away. But he doesn’t and gradually he wins something akin to respect from Walt. Both transitions—Walt and Thao and Walt and the priest, are achieved superbly and are very believable.
One or two other scenes, particularly one where Walt confronts three gang members harassing Sue, are not quite as convincing—the gang members are either threatening or they aren’t, and if an unarmed 70-year-old can scare them away, how much danger was Sue in in the first place? Nevertheless, overall Gran Torino works well and says a lot more about redemption and human relationships than most films. Some credit should go to writer Nick Schenk but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Eastwood getting this film, with its torrent of racial epitaphs made. Eastwood’s performance is one of the best in a long career; it almost pays homage to the many tough guys he has ever played. The film’s resolution says much about his complex relationship to violence on film and, while not as convincing as some parts of the film, is heavily symbolic. How long Eastwood will continue to make films is anyone’s guess. His level of commitment to Gran Torino is impressive: not only is he the star, director, and producer, but he actually wrote the theme song and growls the opening verse and chorus on the soundtrack at the end of the film. His heartfelt but creaky performance as a crooner isn’t the only reason he should not give up his day job.