Gran Torino (2008): Clint Eastwood’s Star Vehicle

Marking his first screen role since his 2004 Oscar-winning film “Million Dollar Baby,” for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Gran Torino is a rather old-fashioned, character-driven drama, based on the often-used premise of a fish out of water, or to put it in more sociological terms, culture collision. 

In this film, the conflicts and contrasts are embodied by two individuals, fifty years apart in age, who belong to entirely different socio-cultural and racial milieus.

As “the fish out of water” Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a rigid, iron-willed Korean War veteran living in a rapidly changing world, who is forced by his immigrant neighbors to confront his own biases, prejudices, and his entire value system and way of life.  Despite some elements of violence in the depiction of gang wars and a sad but well-earned denouement, the movie offers a rather pleasant and enjoyable experience, due to Eastwood’s high-caliber if broad acting and also the positive, upbeat message.  Reflecting the new demographics of American society in the new millennium, “Gran Torino” is a classic sage applied to new realities, which makes it both timely and timeless.

Lacking the gravity of issues and moral ambiguity that have defined Eastwood’s recent work as a director (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Father,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and even “Changeling”), “Gran Torino” contains healthy humor, is much simpler in narrative structure, and much clearer in tone.  I will not describe it as a downright crowd-pleaser but as mainstream entertainment, which might broaden its commercial appeal.  Eastwood’s two war films and “Changeling” (which is still running) have not been particularly successful at the box-office.

The sound of Eastwood character’s name immediately brings to mind another working- class brute named Kowalski, Stanley, in Kazan’s version of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a movie that could not have been more different from “Gran Torino,” though Walt Kowalski certainly possesses his own set of prejudices and psychological problems, at least when the story begins.

The story begins and ends in church.  In the first scene, Kowalski attends the funeral ceremonies for his dead wife, Doris.  We quickly learn that his wife’s final wish was for him to take confession.  But Walt feels that there’s nothing for him to confess, plus, there is no one he can trust enough to confess, certainly not the new, young pastor.

In clear and broad narrative brushes, scripter Nick Schenk, working from a story by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk, reveals crucial personality traits and episodes of Kowalski’s long life.  He is an embittered veteran of the Korean War who keeps his M-1 rifle cleaned and ready—just in case.  A retired autoworker, he now fills his days with home repair, guzzling beer, taking regular trips to the barber, and spending quality time in his garden with his old and loyal dog, Daisy; occasionally, Kowalski could be heard talking to his dog.

The people who used to be his neighbors have all moved or passed away, and they are now replaced by Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia. Resentful of virtually everything he witnesses about their way of life, Kowalski has nothing but contempt for them.  But Kowalski basically despises everything he sees and everyone he meets.  He resents the drooping eaves, overgrown lawns, the foreign faces surrounding and smiling at him.  Then, there are the local gangs of Hmong, Latino and African American teenagers who think and behave as if the neighborhood belongs to them.

A widower, Kowalski is also estranged from the callow strangers that his own grown-up children have become. Unlike another famous screen retiree, Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” who embarks on an exciting journey after his wife’s death, Kowalski just seems to be waiting out the rest of his life.

His quiet, rather boring existence is thrown into chaos, when one night someone tries to steal his 72 Gran Torino.  Still gleaming as it did the day Walt himself helped roll it off the assembly line decades ago, the car serves as a means of communication—really a physical and social bridge—to his shy teenaged neighbor Thao (Bee Vang).  Unbeknownst to him, Thao, a “mamma’s boy,” has been pressured by the Hmong gang-bangers into trying to steal the cherished object as a rite of passage into manhood.

Standing, literally and figuratively, in the way of the heist and the gang, makes Kowalski the reluctant hero of the neighborhood, especially to Thao’s mother and older sister Sue (Ahney Her), who insist that Thao work for Walt as a way to make amends. Though he initially wants nothing to do with “these people,” Walt eventually gives in and puts the boy to work fixing up the neighborhood.

The ensuing saga depicts a series of interactions, mostly learning experiences, between Kowalski and Thao, which ultimately lead to one of the unlikeliest friendship seen in American film, one that forever changes both men and their value systems.

Through Thao and his family’s unrelenting kindness, Kowalski comes to understand certain truths about the people next door and about himself.  He recognizes that these people, mostly provincial refugees from a cruel past, have more in common with him than he has with his own flesh and blood.  It’s through them that Kowalski gains self-awareness in an odyssey that reveals to him parts of his soul that have been walled off since the Korean War.

“Gran Torino,” just like “About Schmidt,” is a uniquely American work, an upbeat, future-oriented saga that shows that no matter how old and rigid you are, you can always change–under the right circumstances.  At first, Kowalski slings racial slurs and appears to be an unrepentant bigot, a man who holds that all Asians are the same and that their culture has no face.  However, through his communications with the Hmong people, his layers of bigotry and hostility begin to peel away, and they also force him to come to terms (and talk about) with the haunting experiences he had endured in Korea.

Significantly, the first person to stand up to Kowalski and break through with his prickly exterior is a woman, Sue, Thao’s spirited older sister, who is more Americanized than the rest of her clan. Brave and endowed with “chutzpah,” Sue even teases Kowalski by using nicknames like “Wally.”  More importantly, Sue realizes that Kowalski is the only person who can save her brother from joining a gang, or being endlessly ostracized.  For her, the mentorship is a matter of life and death.

The same logic describes the shifting relationship with Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), the priest of Kowalski’s late wife.  Janovich keeps interrupting Kowalski’s desire to be left alone, trying to break through to him, while using commonsense knowledge And while at first he fails, the Father, despite his young age and lack of experience, doesn’t give up; Kowalski recognizes that in many way, the Father is just as stubborn as he is.

As noted, Eastwood has not been in front of the camera since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” Interestingly, the character of Walt Kowalski was not written with a specific actor in mind, though it’s hard to imagine any other thespian playing the part, which fits Eastwood’s age, specific acting skills, and screen image as a glove.   Like the Duke, in True Grit” and other films during the last decade of his career (“The Cowboys”, “The Shootist”), in which he played surrogate fathers or grandfathers set in his own ways but still committed to basic values, who transmitted the torch to the younger generation, Eastwood fulfills a similar narrative function in “Gran Torino,” in which his character is roughly his own biological age.

Though he plays a part that’s largely unsympathetic, at least in the beginning chapters, Eastwood goes all out with a set of overt gestures and grimaces that while meant to poke fun at his neighbors essentially poke fun at and even satirize his own screen image and acting style, both largely underestimated by film critics, audiences, and the Oscar voters.

Cast

Walt Kowalski – Clint Eastwood
Thao – Bee Vang
Sue – Ahney Her
Father Janovich -Christopher Carley
Mitch Kowalski – Brian Haley
Karen Kowalski – Geraldine Hughes
Steve Kowalski – Brian Howe
Ashley Kowalski – Dreama Walker
Tim Kennedy – William Hill
Barber Martin – John Carroll Lynch
Vu – Brooke Chia Thao
Grandma – Chee Thao

Credits

A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Double Nickel Entertainment, Malpaso production.
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Bill Gerber.
Executive producers, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman, Tim Moore, Bruce Berman. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Screenplay, Nick Schenk; story, Dave Johanson, Schenk.

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Tom Stern

Editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; music, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens Production designer, James J. Murakami

Art director, John Warnke

Set decorator, Gary Fettis

Costume designer, Deborah Hopper

Sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Walt Martin

Supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray

Co-supervising sound editor, Bub Asman

Re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff

Assistant director, Donald Murphy

Casting, Ellen Chenoweth.