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Gran Torino (2008): ***½

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Can you imagine what Dirty Harry would be like if he retired? Or the Man With No Name? Or any of the various military/police/cowboy/badass characters that Clint Eastwood has played for the past 40+ years? Could you imagine any of them actually being happy? How could they become anything but a grumpy old man? And that's what we see in Gran Torino: quite possibly the best grumpy old man movie ever.

And who better to play a grumpy old man than Clint Eastwood? We've all watched his face weather and age over the past 40+ years through all the various tough guys and cowboys and cops and other grizzled characters he's played. And now he seems to have distilled them all down into one concentrated dose in Walter Kowalski, a Korean veteran and retired auto worker and miserable old bastard.

Walt Kowalski doesn't really do much. He keeps up on his housework. He gets a haircut every three weeks. He sits on his porch and drinks beer, though he never seems to relax when he's doing it. And he scowls. Oh, how he scowls.

This movie is essentially a character study of a man who saw too much death early in his life and never really learned how to live. Walt flung himself from the military into that strict mid-western work ethic (he worked the line at a Ford factory) so diligently that anyone who is able to actually relax and let things slide seems like an horrible, lazy, good-fer-nothin' slob to him. He's spent his whole life rigidifying as if applying rigor-mortis to himself in layers so that when he finally does die there won't be that much change. He lived his life his way and if anybody else wants to live their lives their way, well, then they're wrong and deserve his scorn.

No, it isn't a sympathetic performance. Walt is racist, mean, unapproachable, and judgmental. The only way he relates to people is by playfully insulting them, lest anything meaningful accidentally get said. But, goddamnit, the performance and direction by Clint Eastwood make you like the old man.

Here why: even though he's a man who never really learned to live, you can see that there is life inside of him somewhere. Walt is like a coiled spring. He isn't sedentary and weak. He's strong and proud and fiercely independent. He's whip-smart. You can just feel that there's something down there, way behind the rigid wall, that might actually resemble a relatable human being.

And we're not the only person who sees it. His next-door neighbors are a family of Hmong immigrants (indeed, most of his neighborhood has slowly been transformed into a Hmong neighborhood), and the eldest daughter, Sue, is also able to see through all of Walt's bullshit. She can see that there's a good but damaged man behind that scowl. And when A Series Of Unlikely Events involving a local Hmong gang and Sue's younger, Thao, brother draws the Hmong community closer to Walt, Sue takes the opportunity to try to draw Walt out of himself using a very clever trick: she completely ignores his surface. She doesn't challenge his bigotry or chide him for being mean. She simply acts as though he never said anything bad at all, and talks directly to the person hiding behind the wall. Eventually when none of his barbs end up hitting anything, Walt grows tired of firing them until finally on his birthday a remarkable thing happens: he runs out of beer on his front porch, and Sue invites him next door to her family's barbecue.

Over time Walt begins to see that the "gooks" next door represent something that he hasn't had since the army: they're a community. And they actually seem to respect their elderly. At one point Walt looks around at his neighbors and realizes to his shock and horror that he has more in common with them than he does his own family.

There's an important aspect to Gran Torino that I'm probably not getting through in this review. Gran Torino is funny. Rip-roaringly, gut-bustingly funny. And not because there are wacky characters or funny one-liners or jokes or anything like that. It's funny because it seems so true. There are scenes where Walt looks at things happening around him and just lets out a quiet growl and you laugh and laugh because you know he just wants to beat the living snot out of somebody, and because it's Clint Eastwood up on that screen you know he could. There are scenes where he uncomfortably tries to relate to his neighbors that are just pure giggle fests. And there are scenes where he tries to teach Thao to be just like him that end up being so funny that I practically had to jump up out of my seat and dance around.

When eventually the escalating tension war of tension between Walt and the Hmong gang of thugs evolves into a climax that seemingly has Walt picking back up his old warrior ways, we all discover together that Walt has finally actually learned what it means to be a part of a community in a way that is surprising and absolutely badass.

Gran Torino is, at its heart, a movie that says that family has nothing to do with blood.

And, yes, at one point Clint Eastwood does say, "Get off of my lawn." And, yes, it is the most awesome utterance of those words ever to be captured on film.


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