(2008 ) Director: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima) | Writer: Nick Schenk
Though Clint Eastwood is 78 going on dead, it seems most people had hoped Gran Torino would be a final return to the Dirty Harry-type films of Eastwood yore. While I admit that it would be fun to watch a near-octogenarian jumping through the open windows of running cars and blowing the faces off of murderers and rapists, I don’t quite get why one would trade in Eastwood’s current style of directorial fare for such a morbid spectacle. Sure, Million Dollar Baby was preachy and manipulative, but what Oscar-worthy dramas aren’t? Happily, Torino is neither as lightweight as a cop thriller nor as maudlin as a right-to-die weeper, and though stocked with the kind of earnest Hollywood-isms that Eastwood is now famous for, the resulting film is as utterly engrossing and satisfying a movie as the screen legend has ever made.
Eastwood—who at this point looks like a skeleton with translucent skin draped loosely over his head—is riveting as Walt Kowalski, a Michigan-based Korean War vet with a dark past and a penchant for casual racism, who, by the time his wife has passed away at the beginning of the film, has holed himself away from his disrespectful family and an incessant, youthful priest (Christopher Carley) bound to convince Walt to come to confession. Walt bemoans the passing of time, not because of his looming mortality, but because of his hometown’s degradation, marked by the influx of “foreigners” into his neighborhood, and especially the Hmong family next door.
When the youngest of the family, Thao (Bee Vang), is forced into trying to steal Walt’s pristine 1972 Gran Torino as a gang initiation, Walt, heeding the pleas of Thao’s sharp-tongued sister Sue (Ahney Her), begrudgingly takes the misguided youth under his leathery, vein-ridden wing in order to teach him a thing or two about being a man. Because of his newfound relationship with the Hmong family, Walt finds himself ready to make up for his past, but not in the way his late wife had hoped.
Vang’s fantastically shy, inexperienced performance is refreshingly well-matched to the introverted character he plays, if only because Eastwood sometimes directs actors as though they’re community theater performers shouting to the back row (Mystic River, anyone?). Little changes here with the rest of the cast, save for Eastwood’s own turn as the growling, hermitic Walt; where this same performance in nearly every role he’s had has seemed at times unnecessarily gruff—especially in his younger days—in Torino he seems to have finally aged into the persona, and the result is perhaps his finest work as an actor yet—or ever, if his claims of retirement from acting are true.
The film is also a requiem for Detroit, a sort of eulogy for the ideal of the American working class. But there is an undercurrent of hope in Torino, and it overwhelms the darkness brought upon the movie’s characters by the specter of inner-city crime. In his latter days as a filmmaker, Eastwood seems intent on proving that human worth has nothing to do with class, race, or gender, but everything to do with the choices we make. Other omnipresent themes of absolution and coming of age abound as well, but the picture’s most prevalent motif is an old Sam Peckinpah standby: the plight of the Old Guard, pondering extinction in the face of a valueless new age and apathetic new generations. Should a man fade out with quiet dignity or make one last rebellious stand? Eastwood’s choice isn’t new, but it doesn’t make Torino any less enjoyable or gratifying.
Rating: Four and a Half of Five Stars