It is difficult to find the right combination of words to describe just how good a film Gran Torino is, but that’s no excuse for not trying. Here goes:
Clint Eastwood, in what he says may be his last acting role, plays Walt Kowalski, a retired automotive worker and Korean War veteran, who has seen his neighborhood transformed – mostly for the worse – by the realities of white flight and the influx of lower income immigrants.
Immediately the viewer is caught up by Kowalski’s smoldering distaste for the shallow eulogy offered by the parish’s young priest (in what turns out to be a superb coming-of-age performance by Christopher Carley) and the lack of decorum demonstrated by his grandchildren in failing to show respect for their departed grandmother. He clearly has a strained, at best, relationship with his own children, who he holds at a distance and views as spoiled and self-serving.
Similar disdain is held for his neighbors, two Hmong teens, Thao (Bee Vang) and his older sister, Sue (Ahney Her), who live next door to Walt with their mother and grandmother.
Through Walt’s constant and simmering contempt for the situation as a whole, much of his world view becomes clear, or at least so it seems. What changes everything is when Thao is confronted by a Hispanic gang and “rescued” by a Hmong gang led by his cousin Spider (Doua Moua).
Spider and his compatriots badger Thao into joining them. His initiation, they say, will be easy. Simply steal Walt’s prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Of course it wouldn’t be a Clint Eastwood film if Walt didn’t interrupt the robbery with the rifle he carried in the Korean War. From there, events spiral in unexpected ways.
Walt, who clearly carries many of the prejudices of his era – and frequently says things that many think but don’t give voice to – finds himself in the middle of a fight he didn’t ask for... but one he won’t run away from. Despite what the character himself would say, the viewer finds that there are many layers to the man and that his moral sensibility is far in excess of his reality.
Gran Torino is the finest film I have seen in many years. It tosses out the political correctness and portrays Walt Kowalski how he is rather than how he should be, and it becomes a superb study of humanity’s high and low points by doing so. It meets head-on the loneliness that time and change can bring, and it weighs and measures idealism against experience, benign prejudice against racism, and what a man says against what he does.
Across the board, the performances are solidly grounded and beautifully delivered. The choice of shots, photography, and editing are superior. The script must have been an awesome thing to behold and only made better by this master director.
How did Eastwood give such a great performance as an actor and get such performances out of the rest of the cast as a director? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. He did.