REVIEW: Gran Torino

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Very mixed words have been thrown about this movie as of late: whether it be “Clint’s disaster” or “Clint’s greatest performance” or “Clint’s mediocrity”, Gran Torino is Eastwood’s most scattered film to date.

Written by Nick Schenk, Gran Torino revolves around Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a American patriot; a Vietnam & Korea veteran. The kicker? Walt’s grudge against the Vietnamese (and most other races) has long surpassed an acceptable time: he’s become bitter and racist.

Filled with coincidences, Nick Schenk’s story structure is far too
guileless for me too completely love, but a sense of deeper meaning and surprisingly good character development do help make the film’s predictable structure much easier to swallow.

Unfortunately, his wife has just died, making Walt a much less caring man for several things: the one that stays prevalent throughout the course of the film is his faith in religion. He jabs at Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) about God’s flaws whenever they speak, no matter how minimal their chatter may be.

More grief strikes the ostensibly emotionless Walt – during the post-mass get together at his house, a family from Hmong. This family is apparently consisting of Thai and Vietnamese people; predominantly female, which despite Walt’s lack of racial acceptance, does play a large part in the development of Walt.

And for kicks, to tack on another layer of disappointment, Walt’s family thinks him either the White Devil or a grumpy old man. For example, his granddaughter wanting him to die so she can gain the rights to his Gran Torino and furniture, and when she get a cold look from her grandfather, she snickers, rolls her eyes and leaves. No consolation for his posthumous loss; just keeping with the cliche, but true idealism of this selfish generation. Additional to this, the fact that she arrived to her grandmother’s funeral with skimpy attire that showed navel is beyond insulting and really allows you to picture Walt’s daily disappointments.

But alas, Walt’s family anguish does not end there. His son, Mitch (Brian Haley) and his wife, Karen (Geraldine Hughes) are trying to pressure him into moving to a retirement home. They prompt the suggestion on his birthday, which despite the seething hatred you may have for Walt at this point, you won’t be able to feel at least a little bad for him.

…but at least his reaction is hilarious.

Humor runs rampant throughout the film. Whether or not you’re in the mood to hear seventeen different ways of insulting Oriental people is crucial in being fond of this film.

Nick Schenk’s portrayal of the typical uneducated, elderly racist is as accurate as one could imagine. Apart from this aspect, Gran Torino is like a battered piece of fruit; some will be optimistic and call it sweeter than imaginable, but some will be pessimistic and throw it out, calling it bitter. Regardless of taste, this film will stick with you, winsome Walt and all.

Despite Mr. Kowalski’s daily crass routine, he is an earnest man at heart. He believes the a man is only as strong as how he’s perceived and is admirable by succeeding where few men can. This is all fundamental to the story, as is everything Walt does.

After the Hmong people move in, Thao (Bee Vang) goes strolling, minding his own business; only kept company by his school book. A gang of five men pull up in a car, giving Thao some unwanted company. Luckily, Thao’s older cousin, the street named Spider (Doua Moua) is with his gang as well, in another car juxtaposed to the situation at hand. Spider’s gang pulls up next to the initial (predominantly Latin) gang and the tension jumps ten fold. A man in the backseat of the Latino gang pulls out a glock – a man in Spider’s gang pulls out an oozie. Needless to say, Spider’s gang wins that confrontation.

In between the Thao plot and Walt plot, you get a vivid gist of Walt’s racial intolerance. Whether it be getting a haircut with his barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch) whom he calls a “Cheap Wop Jew bastard” after finding out his haircut is 10 dollars or having a beer with his old pals, delivering perhaps the most blatantly racist joke you’ll ever hear:

“A mexican, a jew and a colored guy walk into a bar. The bartender goes ‘Get the f-ck out of here'”.

The startlingly sincere, but uncomfortably playful delivery of such lines make you believe Walt is a lost cause, but perhaps there is more to it than just that.

One fateful afternoon Spider and his gang approach Thao’s house while Thao is outside doing garden work, carefully being watched by his sister, Sue (Ahney Her). The gang approaches with the same preplanned procedure. They force Thao to take their initiation test: steal the old neighbor’s Gran Torino. That night, Thao attempts to, but Walt’s hair-trigger reflexes come to their mechanical use. He grabs his M1 Grand and heads to the garage. He catches Thao, but falls. Thao escapes.

The next evening, Spider and his gang approach Thao again, but a loud ruckus is stirred up, causing Walt’s reactions to generate once again. He runs out of his house – M1 Grand cocked and ready to go – saving Thao and his family from dealing with the gang.

Forever grateful, the Lor family (the Hmong people) shower Walt with gifts, and being the bigot he is, he demands they be taken back. When put in a predicament where there is no other option but to accept the gifts, he uses Thao as a scapegoat saying “Keep him the f-ck off my property”, therefore putting everything that has ever happened in the null section.

However, Walt takes a liking to Sue soon after. She is with her white, wanna-be gangster boyfriend Trey when the are approached by a trio of black men. Walt just happened to be across the street witnessing the possible harm at hand. He debates within himself whether to help a lesser human or to be a man and help a woman in harm’s way. He chooses the latter. Saving Sue, they become very close which opens Walt’s eyes to a completely different culture that he slowly beings to embrace: for the tasty food, alcoholic generosity & kind ways.

In taking to Sue strongly, he beings to take to Thao as well, bringing them both beneath his visibly sturdy wing, despite the mangled structure beneath. And because of these two neighbors, Walt Kowalski essentially becomes the neighborhood crime fighter: scaring off villains with one mean look and one handgun (not like a Colt .45, but rather like the gun in the picture above).

Intimidation and humor are keys to the film success – with these very compact restrictions Clint Eastwood delivers his greatest performance to date. His outrageous delivery and his underlying hurt in this role is as iconic as any previous role he’s been committed to. Walt Kowalski forces Clint Eastwood to step outside any comfort zone he’s ever had and just place everything he’s got on the table for all to see. Most will relate to his humor, but there are some that will just be stunned by his ability to mix contained heartache and deeply covered secrets with a front for humor. I am clearly one of these people.

Apart from Eastwood, the cast consists of no named actors, most with minimal, if any experience. The only performance I really liked apart from Eastwood’s was John Carroll Lynch’s as the barber. His chemistry with Clint is beautiful, in a disturbingly uneasy and casual way. The two scenes he’s in are by far the most light and most enjoyable, but you know that deep down this barber is outraged by Walt’s remarks, and that’s why Lynch’s performance – despite only lasting a few minutes – is appealing to everyone, whether it be finesse lovers or humor lovers.

With a fantastic performance, Eastwood also invites two anticipated verbs into the picture: trembling and foreshadowing, two motions Clint is very well known for utilizing more often than not. His subtle use of battle music that plays quietly as Walt seeks intruders and corrupted people – therefore doing a national duty in his eyes – is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also quite distinct. Very rarely do you hear music in a film utilized to give you a deeper perspective of a character, but to that it heighten the mood as well is almost unheard of. Simple things like this make for a more engaging film.

Unfortunate for the film, the ending is disparate. There is immense buildup with a lot of possible outcomes, but Nick Schenk took the easy way out and made the ending sentimental. Walt’s actions for doing what he does in the closing sequence is noble, if foolish. You’ll be pondering “Why?” for many moments after the movie concludes, but you’ll only come across a simple psychological explanation that shouldn’t sit well with any film fan – especially considering how little evidence that accompanies such an end there is. The finale could have been much more dynamic in execution as well. The ending is very underwhelming to say the least, so if any rewrite was needed for the film to be considered anything more than good, it was certainly the ending.

By the end of the film, you should feel one of three things: cheated, sad or happy, depending on how you look at the film… but regardless of how much or how little you appreciate Gran Torino one thing is for sure: you’ll agree that a suitablealternative  name for the film could have been Dirty, Old Racist Harry. ***/****

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