Gran Torino is a full-on Clint Eastwood Project, considering he directs, produces, stars and wrote music for the film. His character of Walt Kowalski is basically a retread of previous Eastwood roles (Dirty Harry comes to mind first)…the gruff and grizzled man’s man who always has an air of sadness and emptiness surrounding him. But that’s okay – he reliably plays that role well and though he’s up there in years now (78) he still brings a consistent vigour to his work.
The movie is set in Detroit and deals with Kowalski’s struggle to understand and inhabit the changing world around him. His old neighborhood has devolved (in his eyes) from a once idyllic and proud American community into a rundown, crime-ridden suburb infested with immigrants. The screenplay originally was set in Minneapolis but the Michigan setting probably works better, as no other city in America right now speaks more to the urban decay and social alienation of a once thriving metropolis than Detroit. But it’s not just his neighbours that curdle Walt’s milk – he also shares a similar (if less vitriolic) relationship with both his family and a priest that checks up on his well-being.
Kowalkski is that ultimate in contradictions – an old-school patriot who fought in the Korean War who believes in honour, hard work and principles yet carries with him the biases and prejudices of the past that he’s never been able to eradicate. His next door neighbours are Hmong (from Southeast Asia) and Walt doesn’t understand them or like them, simply for the reason they’re different. Incidents involving an Asian gang trying to intimidate the neighbour’s son that spills over onto Walt’s property and then an attempted theft of Walt’s titular car (a mint condition ’72) by that same kid only reinforce the hate Walt feels. Hilariously, during the first dispute that also brings other members of the family out of the house he brandishes a shotgun and actually growls at them “get off my lawn”. I couldn’t decide whether this was a sly wink at a line that has come to embody the cariacture of the grumpy old man or just unintentional comedy. Other points in the film have Walt literally “grrrrrr”-ing to express his displeasure at a situation and these just don’t ring true.
The movie is thoroughly entertaining but occasionally over-reaching in its attempts to soften Walt’s hard heart. Eastwood has said that this will be his last acting role and if he sticks to his word then Gran Torino is a more than respectable performance from which to bow out gracefully from a fine career in front of the camera.