Gran Torino

Approaching his eightieth birthday, Clint Eastwood directs himself in what might be his last screen appearance in Gran Torino, an intemperate State of the Nation address that mixes melodrama, social commentary, comedy and a lot of squint-eyed growling to winning effect.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty former car-factory worker who, as the film opens, is burying his late wife. His two sons are raising their own families now so Walt lives alone in a big house in a neighbourhood that has seen an influx of Asian immigrants. Being an unrepentant bigot and a veteran of the Korean war, Walt doesn’t care much for the new arrivals, unleashing a tirade of racially insensitive epithets at the merest provocation. He sits on his veranda most evenings, knocking back cans of beer and smoking cigarettes, growling and snarling at whoever crosses his line of sight. Walt’s only kind words are reserved for his dog, Daisy. His most treasured possession is a mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a throaty American muscle car that Walt built himself on the production line. It sits shining on his driveway, a symbol of the way things used to be.

Walt especially dislikes his next-door neighbours, a recently arrived family from the Hmong community in Laos; a recently divorced mother, her elderly grandmother and two young kids, Sue (Ahney Her) and Thao (Bee Vang). When a gang of local thugs start harassing the shy teenager Thao, Walt cannot help but get involved. Typically for the man, he does this by knocking the wannabe gangsters on their backsides, sticking the barrel of his enormous rifle in their faces and snarling. The thugs don’t get the message (they obviously haven’t seen Dirty Harry) and their campaign of harassment quickly escalates to drive-by shootings and assaults. Walt might be a racist but he can’t stand bullying and so a friendship develops under siege between the ancient dinosaur with his old-fashioned ideas and the two young kids.

I don’t want to say much more than that about the plot, except to note that Eastwood is far too smart (and far too liberally-minded) to allow his bile-spitting Walt to become a flag-bearer for intolerance. It's tough to listen to this old man bark racial epitets at the younger cast, and it doesn't matter that they are too polite to tell him he's wrong. They seem able to ignore the racial taunts, but we cannot, not really. This is a character primed from the opening scenes for change, the challenge being how successfully Eastwood brings this about. He does this, in part, by explicitly referencing his own back catalogue of tough-guy roles and then, gently but persistently, re-positioning Walt as an agent for good.

The script, from newcomer Nick Schenk, builds from the obvious to the unexpected with a certain clunking grace, even as it relies too much on cinematic shorthand to get its message across. Nevertheless, this is a fine film, initially disconcertingly odd and contrived but eventually both emotionally frank and satisfyingly redemptive.

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