Walt Kowalski – played by the film’s director, Clint Eastwood – is a retired car worker and gun-toting Korean War veteran who despises everyone and everything around him. His wife has just died. His sons, all-American salesmen, are alien to him. His neighbourhood has been taken over by Asians who look like the Koreans he has killed. Barely a sentence comes out of his mouth that is not contaminated by racism and rage.
The monotony of his bitter life is broken by Sue, feisty teenage daughter of his Hmong neighbours – victims of the US war against Vietnam. His shell is pierced by her brightness and refusal to take his sourness seriously. Gradually he is drawn into his neighbours’ world. He is overwhelmed by their generosity. His prejudices are undermined. He is touched by their tragedies. His consciousness changes.
On every level this film far exceeded my expectations. I did not expect to roar with laughter at the words of a rabid racist. But I did, including when he rebuffs an earnest Catholic priest hovering around his grief like a buzzard: “Why should I confess to a 27 year old over-educated virgin just out of priest school who likes to hold old women’s hands and promise them eternity?”
I did not expect to be moved by the relationship that develops between Walt and his neighbour’s son, Thao. But I was, and deeply so, especially at the end.
I did not expect an assault on US materialism and foreign policy, although perhaps I should have after Clint Eastwood’s 2006 film, Letters from Iwo Jima.
Gran Torino is more subtle. The war hero Walt has a festering emotional wound, caused by the horror of what he did in Korea. His sons, inheritors of the country he fought for, are made soulless by greed and ignorance. Warmth and hope come from the collective spirit of the Hmong. The film virtually demands that the US should seek redemption and make amends for its past wrongs.
The film is not without weaknesses. Walt’s racist banter with his Italian barber could imply that racist language shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that words can’t harm. On occasion, understated symbolism is rammed home with klaxons, underestimating the audience.
But the film’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. The acting is superb, including by the non-actors playing the Hmong characters who were recruited entirely from Hmong communities after a nationwide search. Clint is at his squinting, scowling, snarling best. The pace and plot are excellent. The dialogue is sharp.
I suspect Gran Torino will mean very different things to different people. For me it is a thought-provoking and highly watchable film that reviles racism, materialism, the desolate neighbourhoods that breed gangs and, above all, the US’s imperialist wars.
Clint. Nearly 80. What a man.
A quietly evocative film
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