“Gran Torino”


Gran Torino
Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch
Written by Nick Schenk
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence

Walt Kowalski was born scowling. When Gran Torino begins, it’s been tempered into something resembling sadness on the occasion of his wife’s funeral, but it’s there. It’s a permanent feature on his craggy face, just another line deepened with age.

He can’t help a steely glare at the assembled. The grandchildren mocking Catholic tradition on such a somber day. The bored granddaughter busily pecking text on her cell. His two adult sons and their wives, all perhaps suspecting they’re burying the wrong parent. The carrot-topped priest — a punk kid, really — delivering the eulogy. Walt even despises the church itself, an institution he’d endured solely for his wife’s sake. He’d rather be on his porch, fueling his angry vessel with can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It’s been said that Walt Kowalski marks the onscreen retirement of Clint Eastwood, who at 78 plans to focus his abundant energies on directing. If this is true, Torino is a fitting epitaph, the perfect marriage of Eastwood archetypes: the tight-lipped antihero and the earnest iconoclast whose varied passions confound and delight. And Walt is one of the most fascinating of Clint’s creations.

As Unforgiven (1992) was a bittersweet adieu to not only the Western but also the persona embodied in the Man with No Name, Gran Torino makes peace with “Dirty” Harry Callahan, humanizing him, ending his story thoughtfully, poetically. It should satisfy (one would hope) any remaining desire for Clint to strap that .44 to his frame for one last revenge fantasy. Harry can’t exist at 78. He wouldn’t be the antihero anymore, just an unpleasant old man.

And that’s what Walt is when we first meet him. His only meaningful relationships seem to be with his patient Labrador, Daisy, and his barber (John Carroll Lynch), with whom he exchanges the kind of savage barbs only longtime friends can enjoy. Other than that, Walt’s not much for people or words, a common trait in the Eastwood menagerie. I was reminded of something the actor once told Rolling Stone‘s Tim Cahill, when explaining the Man with No Name’s lack of verbosity:

You’ve said that in the original script [for A Fistful of Dollars], the [character] shot off his mouth more than his gun.

… I kept telling Sergio [Leone, the film’s director], “In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture, you explain everything.” That was my way of selling my point. For instance, there was a scene where he decides to save the woman and child. She says, “Why are you doing this?” In the script he just goes on forever. He talks about all kinds of subplots that come out of nowhere, and it goes on and on and on. I thought that was not essential, so I just rewrote the scene the night before we shot it.

Okay, the woman asks, “Why are you doing this?” and he says…

“Because I knew someone like you once and there was nobody there to help.” … We left it oblique and let the audience wonder: “Now wait a minute, what happened?” You try to let people reach into the story, find things in it, choice little items that they enjoy. … You don’t play down to people.

Walt is born of a similar economy. He’s not forthcoming with personal details, and what he does begrudgingly divulge comes in pinches. We know he’s a Korean War veteran, proud on the surface but perhaps still haunted by its atrocities. He loves his sons, in his way, but probably wasn’t the most communicative or demonstrative father. (The film appears to condemn the emotional distance favored by “Dirty” Harry and his ilk by illustrating its real-life consequences.) He thinks his neighborhood’s gone to hell; that goddamn melting pot spilled over and drowned his block in Asians. He once worked at a Ford plant, where he helped assemble the very car he now keeps in his garage under protective cloth: a 1972 Gran Torino. (When his granddaughter asks if she can have it for college, along with some of his “retro” furniture, that scowl burrows further into his head.)

We bring, of course, our own history with Clint to his pictures; the movie counts on that. But Walt must exist apart from it, and it’s an interesting challenge. When he confronts a trio of thugs on a corner, we see 50 years of celluloid badass. Obviously, the characters can’t. To them he’s a geriatric with delusions of heroism. So Clint has to convey something deeper that’s just as intimidating. What emerges from those impenetrable blues isn’t a suicidal old fool, but a man’s who’s faced worse hells than tough-talking street trash. They recognize this and wisely back off.

No such luck with the Asian gang who one night stumble into his life — or, more specifically, onto his lawn, which he maintains with as much loving care as his car. (Yup, Clint gets to invoke that tired cliche of crank, “Get off my lawn!”) Their first glimpse of him is a murderous glare over a rifle, and the relationship disintegrates from there. But on the bright side — and this is the movie’s focus and strength — he finally gets to meet the neighbors.

The Lors are a Hmong family steeped in tradition, although their teenaged children are wholly Westernized. Walt finds a curious ally in Sue (the terrific Ahney Her in her screen debut), who’s just as bullheaded as he is and takes his defense mechanisms with a grace beyond her years. In her brother Thao (Bee Vang) he discovers an opportunity to be a proper father figure, enlisting him in a neighborhood clean-up as payment for trying to jack his car in a botched gang initiation. Walt never fully absorbs this strange culture, but he accepts it, in his way. He sure likes their cuisine, though, and they’re more than happy to deliver to his doorstep. (Walt’s diet is otherwise reminiscent of Callahan’s. The only difference is Harry never got to finish his meals.)

To Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk‘s credit, Walt’s redemption is not a complete about-face slide into mawkishness. For the most part, he remains set, but he betrays the occasional crack. He still calls his barber a money-hungry wop. Crushed empties continue to litter his porch. And his relationship with his own family doesn’t change. In one of the film’s most heatbreaking scenes, Walt calls his oldest son but can’t quite muster the words, and his son would much rather get back to paying his bills.

To its detriment, Gran Torino has been marketed by Warner Bros. as “Elderly grump fucks up gangstas,” eliciting a few complaints about the ending, which I won’t reveal here. To be sure, it’s a little tidy, but it’s the release Walt needs. It’s the release Clint needs. While it may not befit the great Callahan, I think he’d appreciate it, nonetheless.

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3 comments

  1. Kelly · January 15, 2009

    I just love Clint Eastwood. Thanks, Cory, I’m looking forward to seeing this.

  2. coffee · January 16, 2009

    Clint Eastwood used his outward crankiness to come across as tough and yet also heroic at the same time, well done i’d say

  3. coryfrye · January 16, 2009

    Kelly: I may have oversold it with my pseudo-psychoanalytical zeal, but Walt, again, is a fascinating joe.

    Coffee: Excellent observation. Love your blog!

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