There’s something intrinsically likeable about Clint Eastwood, even when he’s the most cantankerous bastard on Earth. Gran Torino needs you to like him, since you’re going to spend two hours in his company, and in this he’s a miserable, racist, prickly sod at the best of times.
Directed by Eastwood himself on a budget of $33 million in 2008, Gran Torino took $270 million at the box office and won a smattering of awards but was bafflingly ignored at the Oscars. Clint Eastwood, then 78 years old, declared this to be his last film as an actor.
Gran Torino is the story of Walt Kowalski, the aforementioned grump, whose wife has recently died. He’s a Korean war veteran who feels isolated in his multicultural neighbourhood, and reserves particular disgust for the Hmong family living next door. Kowalski’s own family show little respect for the astonishingly spry, vigorous old man and display an avaricious interest in his possessions. He is contemptuous towards the young priest (Christopher Carley) who had been instructed by Kowalski’s wife to hear the old curmudgeon’s confession. His mood is not improved when the teenager next door, Thao (Bee Vang), is bullied by a local gang into trying to steal his prized vintage Gran Torino car.
After fending off the gang twice – once saving Thao and later rescuing Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) – Kowalski earns the respect of his Hmong neighbours. Kowalski thaws towards the lad and mentors him in his search for a job. Like the Pixar classic Up, it’s the developing friendship between a bitter old widower and an awkward boy that forms the heart of this film. It’s by turns funny, moving and tense and Clint Eastwood’s performance is both outstanding and understated.
The New York Times review says “Dirty Harry is back, in a way, in Gran Torino, not as a character but as a ghostly presence. He hovers in the film, in its themes and high-caliber imagery, and of course most obviously in Mr. Eastwood’s face. It is a monumental face now, so puckered and pleated that it no longer looks merely weathered, as it has for decades, but seems closer to petrified wood.”
I’ve seen a great number of films like this – character dramas building towards some cataclysmic event – but I don’t think I’ve seen one as quietly, efficiently competent as this. It entertains from start to finish, as coolly on-the-mark as a bullet from Eastwood’s gun.