Gran Torino

March 17 2009 at 1:14 pm (Cinema reviews)

gran-torino-posterMeet Walt Kowalski: an elderly Korean War veteran, living in a quaint house in a ramshackle neighbourhood in Michigan. Now that his wife has died, he has nothing in his life except his dog and his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a car which he helped build when he worked in the town’s Ford factory until it closed. He doesn’t get on with his family (understandably since they’re all rude bastards), and begrudges the ethnic minorities that now abound in his hometown, seeing them as a representation of the dilution of the American dream.


Meet Clint Eastwood: an elderly screen veteran, directing himself in what has been intimated his last acting performance. If this is the case, it would be a fitting tribute to a life lived on screen. But Gran Torino is so much more than just a character study, it’s an insight into a dying generation, an almost obsolete way of life.


Eastwood, the actor, growls his way through the first half of the film, the butt of his family’s and neighbour’s jokes, perhaps with good reason. He’s a grumpy old sod who just wants to be left on his own. He resents his new next-door neighbours (a Hmong family from Laos) and it’s only due to sheer bloody mindedness that he rescues the son Thao (Bee Vang), a shy teenager, from the clutches of a violent gang led by Thao’s cousin. Thao’s family, so grateful for Walt’s bravery, begin to bestow him with gifts and kind words. Of course, eventually he relents, lets them into his life and starts mentoring Thao.


Yes, it’s an unlikely scenario. People generally don’t change, particularly xenophobic pensioners who are stuck in their ways. It’s because of this that the first half of the film is so funny: Walt isn’t Harry Callaghan in retirement, but Victor Meldrew with a rifle. He communicates through a series of grunts and, save for a few scenes of gun-toting menace, he’s essentially an honourable and honest old git.


Eastwood’s star power drives the film which is lucky since much of the supporting cast aren’t up to the task. Gang leader Spider (Doua Moua) is a cardboard cutout of overegged swagger, while Vang plays the shy Thao well, but struggles with his character’s newfound confidence. Ahney Her, however, is a revelation, managing to imbue Thao’s older sister Sue with a disarming confidence as she casually bats away Walt’s front porch racism.


It’s not until the final act that Gran Torino begins to walk it like it talks it when the slow-paced drama dips its toe into revenge thriller territory. It does jar slightly with the hokey sentimentality that has gone before it, but it gives way to a gripping and moving finale. For all the film’s numerous faults (poor acting and occasionally clunky script are just two), it’s ultimately a satisfying experience and at least it has something to say about ageing, family and friendship.


Rating: 4/5


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