Ann Hornaday Movie Review: 'Gran Torino' Is Vintage Eastwood

A strong-willed Korean War veteran confronts his biases when he begins dealing with his immigrant neighbors. Video by Warner Bros.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Scrooge for the 21st century has arrived just in time for Christmas, and wouldn't you know he's come back in the form of Dirty Harry? As the spitting, swearing, hate-spewing lead character of "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood delivers a lacerating and hilarious valedictory of a career as America's most lovable vigilante. Here, he makes the ugly American a thing of almost primitive beauty, as an antihero worthy of Dickens.

"I finish things," says Walt Kowalski at one point in this often disarmingly funny melodrama. "That's what I do." Grim-faced, his voice reduced to a gravelly growl by boilermakers and cigarettes, Kowalski is a recently widowed holdout in his working-class Detroit neighborhood, one of the few white citizens within a growing community of Hmong immigrants. He despises his new neighbors, addressing them with invectives left over from his days in the Korean War. But he doesn't have much use for anyone else either, whether it's the earnest young Catholic priest who continually tries to save his soul or his own grown sons and their vacant, spoiled kids.

Here's what Walt likes to do: sit on his tidy front porch with his yellow Lab, knock back a few beers and look at his lovingly restored 1972 Gran Torino, which sits in the driveway as a pristine symbol of happier days, when he worked at the Ford plant, his wife was still alive and white men like him bestrode the world like giants.

Once in a while he casts a snarling glance at the Hmong grandmother taking the air next door, but he keeps his contact with her family to a minimum until her grandson Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walt's beloved car. Walt's happy simply to let the kid off with a heavily armed warning (this is a man who seems to have a gun in every drawer), but when he scares off a gang that's intimidating Thao's family, he becomes their reluctant hero. Gradually, Walt finds himself befriending Thao and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), a cheerful, indefatigably spunky teenager who greets Walt's insults with a good-natured laugh or equally sarcastic riposte.

Much of the joy of "Gran Torino" -- which Eastwood directed from a script by Nick Schenk -- derives from watching Walt's deepening relationship with his newfound friends, whom he persists in giving names like "Yum Yum" and "Toad" even as he develops a surly affection for them.

Like Archie Bunker before him, Walt is an equal-opportunity verbal bomb-thrower, as evidenced by the quick, unprintable way he dispatches one of Sue's white boyfriends when he sees the couple being threatened by a group of African American teenagers. (It's clear from this scene that there's only one epithet the unreconstructed racist considers off-limits.)

That Walt essentially means no harm is telegraphed when he visits his Italian barber, with whom he engages in a playfully escalating game of mutually assured defamation, their ethnic slurs and put-downs piling up like so much politically incorrect cordwood. One of the most surprising things about "Gran Torino" is how acidly funny it is, and viewers will no doubt find themselves breaking into increasingly disbelieving guffaws as Walt lands yet another oh-no-he-didn't zinger.

And in part they'll be laughing at Eastwood himself, as he takes the role he's best known for -- the outlaw with perfect aim and an unerring moral code -- and proves yet again that there's room for such a creature, even in this postmodern, multiculti age. His face is still handsome, even with his eyes creased into slits and his mouth straightened into a grim, unsmiling line. His body, even with the pants winched up to his sternum, is a tightly coiled instrument of misery and rage. The subtext of one of Walt's recurring gestures, wherein he forms his hand into an imaginary gun and pretends to shoot, is unmistakable. The man who brought Josey Wales and Dirty Harry to life doesn't even need a gun anymore. His withering contempt is fatal enough.

As its title suggests, "Gran Torino" is a nostalgia trip, in this case for the 1970s vigilante action pictures that Eastwood made his own. Anyone familiar with Eastwood as a director knows better than to expect gritty realism from one of his movies. Here, he revives the contours and lines of a pulp genre as lovingly as Walt restores his car, proffering the kind of heightened drama, starchy episodic structure and stock characters that, like those breathtaking epithets, perhaps only someone of his considerable capital can get away with.

And anyone familiar with Eastwood's movies, especially weepers like "Million Dollar Baby," will not be surprised at the tear-jerking streak that runs through "Gran Torino" like a broken yellow line. In this case, another "Camille"-like subplot ends not sentimentally as much as sacramentally, with a character splayed out in a symbolic crucifixion that, staged by any other filmmaker, would invite eye-rolling derision.

But "Gran Torino" isn't the work of just any filmmaker. It's a Clint Eastwood production, and as such it overcomes its only-in-the-movies conventions to exude its own undeniable, and uniquely potent, brand of authenticity. There's a gentle, elegiac grandeur to "Gran Torino," even at its most self-conscious and highly pitched, that befits Eastwood's transcendent place in American culture. Indeed, probably only someone of his symbolic vengeful power could deliver such a welcome seasonal message of tough, twisted redemption. So, Merry Christmas -- and Clint bless us, every one.

Gran Torino (116 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive profanity and violence.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company