Don't Mess with Walt
When Clint Eastwood makes a film about bigotry, he hits hard. Gran Torino pulls no punches in terms of language, prejudiced attitudes and violence. Fortunately, director Eastwood tempers all this with humor. And actor Eastwood delivers a stunning performance as an angry old man who slowly begins to question his negative ideas about other ethnic groups, especially his Hmong neighbors.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) finds little joy in life -- other than owning a 1972 Gran Torino. His wife of many years has just died; he’s practically estranged from his adult sons; and the cultural make-up of his neighborhood has changed too much in ways he doesn’t like at all. Walt sits on his front porch with his faithful old dog, mows his little patch of lawn, gripes about everything, and peppers his conversations with more derogatory racial comments than Archie Bunker at his worst.
Because of a set of circumstances involving gang harassment of a teenage boy from the house next door, Walt ends up reluctantly taking 16-year-old Thao (Bee Vang) under his wing. While supervising the lad as he does odd jobs around the house, Walt can’t help becoming interested in Thao and his family. In fact, it’s quite amusing to watch the almost father/son-like relationship that develops between these very different individuals. Thao’s sister Sue (portrayed by the amazing Ahney Her), who won’t give up on Walt, plays an important part in helping her elderly neighbor change his opinion about her family. Unfortunately, those gang members won’t give up either. Their violent actions continue, so Walt must decide how to handle this situation.
My colleague Diana Saenger calls Walt Kowalski “Dirty Harry on Geritol”-- which seems like an excellent description of Eastwood’s character in this intense drama. Exuding the same kind of “take no prisoners” demeanor, Walt also knows something about gunplay. He’s a Korean war veteran, owns an M-1 rifle and plenty of ammunition. I definitely would not mess with him or his property.
Why do we care so much about Walt? He’s not a lovable guy, for sure. Would we be interested in what happens to him if anyone other than Eastwood played this character? I’ve been thinking about these two questions ever since seeing Gran Torino. My conclusion? We care deeply for Walt because Eastwood pulls out all the stops to give us an honest portrait of a basically good man who’s the victim of his age and time. He’s set in his ways, but not immune to human emotion nor to wanting justice and caring about others, regardless of cultural differences -- despite the offensive language he constantly utters.
With Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood made my day. It’s a memorable film, one belonging on the list with his other impressive offerings such as The Unforgiven, Mystic River, Changeling, Play Misty for Me, Bronco Billy (I'm not kidding!) and Letters from Iwo Jima.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for language throughout, and some violence.)
For more information about Gran Torino, please go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.