Rating: 2 stars
He lost me with the growl. In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a recent widower and Korean War Vet who is pissed at the world. He’s pissed that his neighbors are all Asians and Latinos—“gooks” and “wetbacks” he calls them. He’s pissed that no one buys American anymore. (He worked at the Ford plant for 25 years and keeps his '72 Gran Torino in mint condition.) He’s pissed that kids today have no respect. He’s pissed that his regular male doctor has been replaced by a young female one. And so on. . . How do we know Walt is pissed? Because Walt grits his teeth, spits his chaw in disgust, rolls his eyes, and yes, growls.
I sure wish the director had told Clint to dial it back a little. Oh wait. . .Clint is the director.
Gran Torino is supposed to be cathartic for the viewer: part recipe for social healing, part vigilante justice film. (More than one critic has dubbed it, Dirty Harry: the Later Years.) You see, Walt is no mere angry white guy. He’s an angry white guy with a gun. So when a Hmong gang try to recruit Walt’s innocent young neighbor Thao (Bee Vang)—the initiation is stealing Walt’s prized Torino—Walt stops them before any damage is done.
Walt’s intervention on Thao’s behalf—accidental as it may have been—makes him a neighborhood hero. Suddenly, the very neighbors he has resented and ignored are showering him with gifts and rejecting his gruff refusals of their invitations to a barbecue.
Let the healing begin!
Look, I have no problem with a movie about people from different walks of life finding mutual ground and friendship—The Visitor explored the same themes, brilliantly, last year.
But I didn’t really buy any of this. Young Thao, for example, is idealized beyond belief. He’s not just a sweet teenage boy, he’s a saint, steadfastly refusing to join the gang, mooning chastely over a beautiful neighbor, and even helping a little old lady with her groceries. His sister Sue (Ahney Her), is sassy and quick-witted, she can dish it out to Walt as good as she can take it. (We’re supposed to believe that she would find Walt’s persistent racism amusing, even charming.) As for Walt, his transformation is swift and thorough: He goes from misanthrope to father/protector faster than you can say, “Pass the Hmong barbecue!”
Of course, this kind of shameless heavy-handedness permeates the whole film.
Walt’s own sons and grandkids are not just cold and uncaring—they’re parasites, waiting for Walt to die so they can cash in on his stuff.
Walt isn’t just a Korean War Vet, he’s “haunted every day of his life” by what he did in that war. (Couldn’t he just be haunted some of the time?)
Walt’s dead wife was no mere put-upon woman. She was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” Walt says. Who does he tell this to? The impossibly angel-faced and earnest young priest (Christopher Carley) who looks out for him.
Consider, if you will, Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, another film that Gran Torino somewhat evokes. In that film, Schmidt hated—or least resented—his dead wife. He was a miserable man and miserable husband. Now, that’s the kind of unsentimental honesty Gran Torino so desperately lacks.
Is Gran Torino awful? No, Clint’s too smart a guy to make a film without merit. Some of the scenes between Walt and Thao have a gruff charm—especially when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a real man and Thao shows off his newfound skills in a job interview—and you can’t help but to root for Thao’s family to bond with Walt and defeat the bad guys.
But it’s a fantasy wish-fulfillment film—a strange, uncomfortable intersection of old badass Clint and new enlightened Clint. Walt Kowalksi may evolve in a way that Dirty Harry never could—but he still has that gun. And, of course, that growl.