Following his wife's funeral, grumpy Korean War vet Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) has little to do but drink beer and sneer at his mostly South East Asian neighbours, some of whom sneer back. Next door, Hmong teenager Thao (Bee Vang), is reluctantly pushed into an initiation for the local Hmong gang - to steal Walt's pristine 1972 Gran Torino - until Walt catches him at it. Walt's general disdain isn't limited to Hmongs; he has never really connected with his adult sons, either. But when the prickly old geezer is out of beer, he grudgingly accepts an invitation from Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) to go next door for a barbecue - and beers. His resentment begins to thaw, and when Thao wants to repair the family name and work for Walt doing odd jobs for a week, Walt starts to recognize the humanity in the boy and becomes the father figure the boy doesn't have, leading to dramatic changes in everyone's lives.
Review by Louise Keller:
He's a man who fixes things, this cantankerous growler whose gruff view of life stems from his disappointment in everyone, including himself. Master craftsman Clint Eastwood snarls Walt Kowalski into life in a sublime character study as a man who knows more about death than he does life, and discovers redemption when he least expects it. Eastwood's holster is stacked with humour and pathos as the story canvasses relationships, multi-cultural gang warfare and Walt's treasured Gran Torino, which symbolises life itself.
It's a far cry from the wandering gunfighter of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the 60s, Dirty Harry's modern day gunfighter of the 70s and 80s, or Unforgiven's retired gunslinger of the 90s. Walt is a disillusioned, anti-social, intolerant Agnostic who keeps to himself, talks to himself, spits, swears and keeps a gun close by. His only friend is his loyal Labrador Daisy and the highlight of his week is to drink beer on his porch and look at his prized car, parked in the driveway. The American flag flying from his front yard pleads for differentiation in a street filled with Asians.
In the opening scene, when we meet Walt at the funeral of his adored wife, we immediately sense he has little connection to his two sons and grandchildren. He shows no tolerance for his Asian neighbours (he even threatens them with a gun when they come on his patch of lawn), but a relationship begins - first with Ahney Her's happy-go-lucky Sue Lor, followed by one with Bee Vang's submissive Thao Vang Lor, who he aspires to 'man up a bit'. The humour that weaves in and out is the result of the straight-shooter Walt saying exactly what he thinks. He is a fish out of water in a rough and tumble neighbourhood where bullying and violence form part of everyday survival.
Much of the film's charm comes from the authenticity of the characters of the Hmong family next door, most of whom do not speak English. All the performances ring with truth including Christopher Carley's fresh-faced young pastor, who surprisingly delivers what he promises. The heart of the film is the relationship between Walt and Thao and this develops with absolute realism. Eastwood never lets a hint of sentimentality creep in as the story reaches its climactic conclusion, when gravitas sets in and our emotions are put through the ringer. Guaranteed by the Eastwood signature, this is a powerful and satisfying film that is as moving in hindsight as it is an experience.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's a story with the power of a parable, layered with observations about Western society as a whole (including some specific American issues) and how individuals in it can be alienated from each other. Alienation of the kind that sees armed Asian, Afro and Latino gangs roam the streets, threatening violence. Alienation of the kind that Walt lives every day as he sees his Asian neighbours replacing the original inhabitants of the neighbourhood, their strange language and foreign behaviour an affront to his old set of values. And alienation of the kind that has separated Walt from his sons Mitch (Brian Haley) and Steve (Brian Howe) all their lives.
Clint Eastwood does grumpy old man in spades as Walt, sneering and snorting and railing against the devils in his neighbourhood, all the while snorting at the demons in his own soul. But he doesn't want to go to confession, despite his late wife's instructions to their pastor, the young Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) and he is equally stubborn about looking after himself. So when young Thao (Bee Vang) presents himself to work off his moral debt after trying to steal Walt's beloved and shiny Gran Torino, he also presents Walt with his last chance at redemption. Not that Walt recognises this until much later, about the same time he realises that he has more connection to his previously despised neighbours than his own children and their families.
For all its neat moral and psychological elements, Nick Shenck's screenplay provides a terrific platform for Eastwood to tease out the many layers that make the film so satisfying and so real. For a start, Walt's gruff exterior and often fruity language convey the complex truth about human nature: we can think and feel in really complicated and even contradictory ways.
Bee Vang and Ahney Her are excellent as brother and sister next door, with the burden of cross cultural life on their shoulders and the key to Walt's redemption. Christopher Carley is brilliant as the determined young padre who has to fight his way into Walt's trust, and John Carroll Lynch has an entertaining cameo as Walt's barber and verbal sparring partner.
An emotionally turbo charged ride, Gran Torino is not just shiny outside, but well appointed with mirrors with which to see reflections - as well as a rear view.
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GRAN TORINO (M)
CAST: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch, William Hill,
PRODUCER: Clint Eastwood, Bill Gerber, Robert Lorenz
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
SCRIPT: Nick Shenck (story by Shenck & Dave Johannson)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tom Stern
EDITOR: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
MUSIC: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
PRODUCTION DESIGN: James J. Murakami
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 22, 2009