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
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
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
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.