Its hard to imagine that, ten years ago, the name Clint Eastwood brought images of Dirty Harry, ponchos and Back to the Future III. Since taking to directing full-time, Eastwood has risen into place as one of Hollywoods most nuanced and balanced directors, producing a string of intelligent films tackling delicate subject matter with care and originality. Its no surprise that Gran Torino is no exception: what’s more, we get to see him having a bit of fun!
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean war veteran, who has kept some artillery souvenirs including his M-1 rifle. His wife has just died, his dog Daisy is his only company, his spoilt offspring belittle and patronize him, infuriating him with underhand, money-grabbing, material wantonness so he is unsurprisingly bitter.
To add to his misery the all-American Detroit neighbourhood where he has always lived has gradually become a centre for Hmong immigrants (a people from south-eastern Asia); not great news for a long-time racist. Even his immediate neighbours are Hmong. Their son, Thao, is directionless, soft and spineless, trodden in and easily led. He is soon recruited by his older cousin into a gang. But for his induction he must steal Kowalski’s mint condition 1972 Gran Torino.
The heist is a failure and when Thao resists a second chance to be inducted to the gang a brawl breaks out and spills onto Kowalski’s front lawn. In his inimitable style Eastwood steps out gun in hand and curtly obliges the confrontation to remove itself from his property.
The act inadvertently makes Kowalski a hero. Gifts of gratitude arrive in abundance on his doorstep. Thao’s mother and enigmatic sister Sue force Thao to make amends by offering one week’s service to Kowlaski. Over time differences dissolve, lessons on culture are shared and a friendship surprises them both and both have to face the gangs head-on.
The kids do a fair job of the acting. They are a little over-rehearsed and lack spontaneity but in Eastwood’s hands this adds a touch of magic to their portrayal of adolescent crises and the second-hand defense techniques that litter their experiences. And Clint himself proves he can be hilarious, not something we normally associate with Dirty Harry, sending up his fuss-free, flinty, grumbling old man through squinting eyes with superb one-liners.
Written by first timer, Nick Schenk, the dialogue sometimes jars and the spectrum of pejorative racial terms gets tired after the first few “gooks”, “wang eyes” and “dragon ladys”. But the social observations are spot on. Concise exposs of the worryingly thin surface of machismo; it’s a golden banter of misogyny and motors and the display of assimilation and appeasement that America’s newcomers must undergo as they struggle to settle are precise reflections of life that not often reflected in film.
Eastwood modestly examines the American dream within the intimate and immediate parameters of our own homes. He demonstrates its inadequacy, picking at the institutional issues that are traumatizing American life but without dismissing the importance of what hope, honesty and hard work can achieve. Without the old man, a metaphor of the intervention of power and law, the new peoples of America will remain divided and helpless; stuck in a lonely cycle of isolation, defeat and insufficiency.
The story shifts through comedy, drama, tragedy, shock, feel-good, remorse and desperation, youth culture and tradition. It’s a story of societal freedoms and entrapment impressing that the American dream is melancholic, struggling but also, perhaps, more alive now than ever. Thankfully Eastwood’s filmmaking is just as vital.