Film Review: Gran Torino

27/02/09 | Posted by MattPage

Clint Eastwood has said that Gran Torino will be his last performance as an actor. If so then it’s a fitting place to end. Having spent much of his younger career playing characters whose coolness was demonstrated by making correct guesses at critical moments, his latter years have seen him evolve into a worldly-wise, if prickly, father figure. Gran Torino sees this development arrive at a fitting conclusion.

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 Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet living in a multi-racial suburb in Detroit. The film opens at his wife’s funeral and it quickly becomes apparent that he despises his two sons and his self-centred Granddaughter. His disgust extends considerably further than that, however, and we see him seething at his neighbours, many of whom are Hmong immigrants.

Critical opinion has generally pigeon holed Walt as a racist and it’s not hard to see why. Time and time again he dishes out racial insults, and trades in racial stereotypes as if the last 40 years never happened. It’s like Carol Thatcher in a permanently foul mood. Bizarrely, few of the objects of Walt’s archaic vocabulary seem to mind. It’s like screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote it as a response to Crash as if saying “surely LA doesn’t take offence that easily does it?” It does. Gran Torino didn’t receive a single nomination for this year’s Oscars.

But his racist language sits somewhat awkwardly with his behaviour. How many racists would not only be the only white person at their neighbour’s BBQ, but also hang around, learning the subtleties of their culture and enjoying their food (and their company)?

Having connected with his neighbours, he begins to forge a friendship with their boy, Tao. Tao lacks confidence, has few options for his education, and is unable to stand up for himself in front of his cousin’s gang. But Walt sees that he’s basically a good character and begins to school him in life.

Walt’s ‘discipleship’ of Tao is one of a number of ways that the film relates to the life of Jesus. Walt is a Catholic, and whilst this seems at odds with his language it’s very much related to the old values that he holds so dear.

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Walt’s parish priest, Father Janovich, is seemingly one of the few people that Walt has some kind of rapport with. He’s perhaps a little two dimensional, but it’s also one of the more nuanced portrayals of a priest we’ve seen in recent years. He genuinely seems to care about Walt, and is determined to fulfil Mrs Kowalski’s plea to make sure Walt gets to confession. But he’s also naïve, though to his credit he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge it. When he eventually makes good on his pledge it’s one of the film’s stronger and more surprising moments.

[spoilers follow]

But the film’s biggest surprise is left until the end. Walt is determined to free Tao from his cousin’s gang. So when Tao has a run-in with them when he’s returning from work one day, Walt tracks them down, beats up one of his cousin’s with a threat that, years ago would have brought things to an end. But times have changed and Walt’s violent retribution only prompts the gang to seek revenge - opening fire at Tao’s house and beating and raping his sister. After decades of seeing Eastwood’s emerge from climatic shoot outs, we sense we know where this one is headed, particularly given his earlier threats.

Walt does indeed head back to the gang’s lair, but this time he has redemption, rather than revenge in mind. Drawing the gang into the open, where their neighbours can witness everything, he bluffs them into shooting him, putting their guilt beyond doubt and ensuring that they’ll no longer be free to trouble Tao again. Lest the similarities between Walt’s sacrificial death and Jesus’ go unnoticed, his body falls in a cruciform position evoking Jesus on the cross.

[end of spoilers]

Whilst Gran Torino is not the best film of the year, there’s certainly enough to recommend it. It carries the plot along nicely piling on the tension from time to time and drawing the audience in as it builds towards its conclusion. Clint has spent much of the last 20 years exploring themes of revenge, violence, forgiveness and redemption, and it’s satisfying to finally see these ideas brought together in one place, and if it is Eastwood’s last film then it’s a good place to draw things to a close.

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just saw this film with some friends from church, intending to discuss its Christian implications in the pub afterwards… it wasn’t hard to make the links, as everything was laid out so well in the film.

a thoroughly good film, definitely to be recommended, so long as people can cope with the language and violence (both implied and visible)

#1. By Andy D on March 09, 2009

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