Movie Review: Gran Torino
The Charlotte Observer
Remember when you made a face as a little kid, and your mother warned you not to do it because you might get stuck that way? Clint Eastwood should have listened.
He wears the same death mask of discomfort through the first hour of “Gran Torino,” the squinting scowl of a man who's been dared to stare straight at the sun for five minutes. Grunts and growls escape him like gas hissing from a deflating balloon. When he attempts a smile, the corners of his lips rise by a sixteenth of an inch; when he's angry, that slit of a mouth narrows by the same degree. Words come out in a raspy, almost unintelligible voice that sounds like a convict sawing through the bars of his cell with a file.
Half of those words are profane in “Gran Torino.” He plays Walt Kowalski, a Michigan bigot who toiled for Ford for 40 years without accepting the people of various colors and nationalities around him on the assembly line.
Walt is reasonably anxious about the incursion of gangs into his once-safe neighborhood and unreasonably angry about his next-door neighbors, a friendly Hmong family that has relocated through the Lutheran Church. We never find out why Walt's a bigot – perhaps because he killed “gooks” in the Korean War, though that wouldn't explain his attitude toward all minorities.
For half a century, Walt has harbored horrible, unexpressed memories of his dark deeds in Korea. So when young Sue Lor (Ahney Her) gets harassed by black thugs, a mixture of guilt and ingrained chivalry toward women prompts Walt to protect her.
Then her younger brother, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation; Walt's enraged but realizes this fatherless kid could become a decent man, if he had a role model. Soon enough, Walt buys Thao a tool belt, finds him a job at a construction site, and teaches him how to swear and insult others' ancestors.
Nick Schenk's well-intentioned script employs the creaky old Hollywood device of reversing everything set up in its first half. When newly widowed Walt blows off a concerned priest (bland Christopher Carley), you can be sure he'll embrace the guy, as soon as the padre proves his manhood by tossing away diet soda in favor of a beer. When Walt mocks the Catholic tradition of confession, you might as well dust off his seat in the confessional.
We get welcome glimpses of the Hmongs' lives, though too few of them, but Walt's kin are such ogreish boors that they seem like cartoons. The film's second half finally acquires more subtlety and a few welcome surprises, once Walt acquires some humanity and Eastwood finally varies his line readings. Alas, the preposterous ending fritters away much of the goodwill the film has slowly gained.
Vang and Her, both of whom make their debuts, are always endearing if occasionally amateurish. Eastwood, who's famous for directing films at top speed, doesn't seem to have helped them much. (It would be uncharitable to suggest he surrounded himself with weaker actors to make his minimalist performance seem stronger, but that's the result.)
As usual, he produced the film; he even co-wrote a song for the end credits with Jamie Cullum, and he croaks one verse before Cullum takes over. If skeletons could sing, this is what they would sound like.