Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Premise: Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is faced with overcoming his prejudice as a Hmong family moves in next door. Walt takes the neighbor boy (Bee Vang) under his wing, toughening him up and acting like a father figure.
What Works: Gran Torino is a film about new beginnings and the film plays with stereotypes. Although Eastwood has typically played rough or difficult characters, Walt Kowalski is one of the thorniest characters in his entire filmography. Like Jack Nicholson’s performance in As Good As It Gets, the film manages to use Eastwood’s charm to allow the audience to laugh while watching the character say really horrible, racist things. As audience members we can laugh about the audaciousness of what he says while not condoning what he says, and the film walks that line. His transition is not overdone and he retains some of the racist vocabulary while also demonstrating a change in behavior. This lends the character and the story credibility. Gran Torino is extremely well unified it its theme of family relations and community. Walt Kowalski’s yuppie sons and grandchildren play like the redneck, white trash family of Million Dollar Baby and it risks derailing the film with overly broad strokes. But this film makes much better use of the characters than Million Dollar Baby by using them to show how emotionally estranged Walt has become from his children and how he has more in common with his Hmong neighbors than his own family. Of the Hmong family, there is a pair of terrific performances by Bee Vang as Tao, the teenage boy who Walt takes under his wing, and Ahney Her as Sue, Tao’s older sister. Both act very naturally and Bee Vang is especially good at selling the boy’s transition and his bond with Walt.
What Doesn’t: The film uses a very heavy handed Christ metaphor at the end that does not seem to match with Walt’s regard for religion or his general attitudes about violence. The picture builds toward a Taxi Driver or Death Sentence-style ending, but instead it pulls away and sets off in a different direction. Some may view this as a cop out, especially those expecting a revisitation of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films, which Gran Torino isn’t.
Bottom Line: Clint Eastwood continues his extraordinary string of directorial efforts with Gran Torino, which is among the better films he has made.
Episode: #223 (January 18, 2009)