The first time I saw the trailer for this film in a theater, the audience laughed. It portrayed a senile, furrow-browed Clint Eastwood brandishing a gun and barking at Asian people to "get off my lawn." Was this Dirty Harry: The Retirement Years? Thankfully, no. As it turns out, Gran Torino is surprisingly earnesta film that is funny and angry and sad for all the right reasons, and remarkably well timed. As 2008 comes to closeand with it many thingsGran Torino captures the zeitgeist as eloquently as anything possibly could.
The title of this film, directed and starring Clint Eastwood, refers to a '70s-era American muscle car, and the story is set in Detroit, at a time when the shrinking, suffering American auto industrycoupled with rising crime and changing demographicshas left everything slightly run-down and depressed. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a Korean war vet who worked 50 years for Fordlives in a Detroit neighborhood full of front-porch, paint-peeled, post-war houses now inhabited by immigrants and aging widowers. The place is rife with the ghosts of a simpler, booming timewhen Ford's assembly line was a symbol of the efficient homogeneity of life after the wars, when white picket fences and neighborhood barbers infused everything with a decidedly homegrown, rust-belt patriotism.
But in 2008, things have changed. Detroit is on its knees, praying for a few extra years. American auto manufacturing, like Walt Kowalski, is experiencing its cantankerous twilight, shaking its head as new paradigms set up shop and kick the old school callously to the curb. Kowalski represents the vestiges of a bygone era, but he will not go quietly into the night.
The film opens with the funeral of Kowalski's wife in a Catholic church, the young parish priest (Christopher Carley) offering well-intentioned words about life and death while Walt angrily grimaces and grunts at his granddaughter's navel piercing. The only emotion he shows is disgustwith just about everything and everyone around him.
Alone and himself physically ailing, Walt takes pleasure in seemingly very little: his '72 Gran Torino, his dog Daisy, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the occasional expletive-laden conversation with a fellow blue-collar curmudgeon. Everything else irks him, especially the fact that his neighborhood is laden with Hmong, Latino, and African-American residents and gangs. Walt is an old-school racist. He can't go two sentences without using the types of racial slurs that were acceptable in his army days circa 1952.
All of this bodes ill for Walt, considering his next-door neighbors are a Hmong immigrant family. And things look especially dire when Walt catches Thaothe awkward teenaged neighbor boy who Walt calls "Toad"trying to steal his Gran Torino. Turns out Thao was pressured to steal the car by a local Hmong gang that relentlessly bullies him, though to Walt it makes little difference. He's spitting mad.
Out of this incident, however, and Thao's family's attempts to make up for his shameful behavior, an unlikely bond forms between Walt and his Hmong neighbors. They have a shared enemy, after all: the gangs. From here the story plays out in a somewhat predictable fashion, as Walt's crotchety defenses break down and he learns to love and be loved again. It all escalates to a typically violent, melancholy conclusion, true to Eastwood form. But lest you expect a rousing, heroic bloodbath ending, remember: this is Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby mode. It's not Dirty Harry.