Review: Gran Torino (2008)

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Having dwelled on the past for three successive films, with Gran Torino Eastwood returned to the present, and indeed to acting for the first time in four years. Identified on its release by many critics as Dirty Harry 6, the film returned Eastwood to many familiar traits of prior personas.

Following the death of his wife, Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski finds himself inadvertently involved with the Hmong family next door when the teenage Tao is harassed by members of a suburban gang. Embittered and unashamedly racist, Walt reluctantly takes Tao under his wing, teaching him how to be a man and to stand up for himself.

Considering the type of character Eastwood has played predominantly throughout his career, the fact that Walt Kowalski may stand as the most gruffly stoic of all says much already about this man. Drawing undoubtedly on Dirty Harry, Eastwood portrays Walt as the definitive cranky old curmudgeon, disdainful of society’s evolution and the changes in the old way of life. One gets the distinct impression that, to a certain extent, Eastwood is having a degree of fun with this character. A Korean War veteran himself, he almost seems to skate on the peripheries of self-parody with Walt, bringing a tongue-in-cheek approach to the popular idea of the classic Eastwood character.

The lightheartedness of this approach to Walt sets the tone for a great deal of the film, this almost comedic sensibility running throughout many of the character’s interactions, particularly those with Tao. We are encouraged to find humour in the character’s casual racism, albeit in the archaic nature of this world view rather than from an agreement with these slurs. Walt is painted as deeply ignorant of these people, his employment of epithets against them rooted in nothing more than his own flaws and shortcomings as a person. His eventual coming around to some form of a paternal relationship with Tao comes as a result of a deeper understanding of this other culture, and the fact that they are not so wholly different from Walt himself.

The lightness of Gran Torino’s approach to its harsh character is not, however, applied throughout the film, its later tackling of far darker issues handled with the classic Eastwood touch of sensitivity and heft. The intrusion of this gang upon the otherwise peaceful life of Tao and his family is underlined with some of Eastwood’s visually darkest scenes yet, matched only in their almost complete absence of light by the most hopeless of Million Dollar Baby’s scenes. Among the film’s strongest moments is Walt’s discovery that Tao’s sister has been beaten and raped in an act of “vengeance”, his furious destruction of his kitchen and subsequent emotional breakdown highlighted by only the faintest sliver of light cast across his features. It is in scenes like these that Gran Torino excels beyond the limitations of its more carefree interludes, giving the full picture of Walt beyond his exaggeratedly masculine exterior.

Another of the film’s great strengths lies in one of its subplots. Prior to her death, Walt’s wife requested of their priest that Walt go to confession and atone for the sins he carries. These sins, hinted at throughout, harken back to Flags of Our Fathers and the continued haunting those characters too underwent. Walt’s exchanges with the baby-faced priest comprise some of the film’s finest wit, the former’s razor sharp dialogue undercutting the latter at every step. Like the film as a whole, however, there is more to this than just the humourous aspect, and Eastwood’s subtle take on the role of religion here again reflects Million Dollar Baby. Like Frankie, Walt posits himself a certain atheist, yet finds himself turning to God when faced with a painful decision.

Charming though its central relationship might be, Gran Torino often teeters on the edge of sentimentality, its development a little too clean-cut to fully avoid a sense of falsity. Bee Vang, in playing Tao, delivers dialogue less than convincingly more than once, his casting perhaps the film’s foremost flaw, and one that detracts from his scenes with Eastwood and Ahney Her, who is much more suited to, and comfortable in, her role as Tao’s sister. These flaws hold Gran Torino back from being as powerful a film as it could have been, along the lines of Eastwood’s better work, though it is nevertheless an impactful and emotional experience.

Fitting in comfortably with Eastwood’s post-Blood Work output, Gran Torino again slowly builds an atmosphere of tragedy, its seriousness increasing as its narrative develops. Its finale is pitch-perfect, the sense of closure deeply satisfying, and the conclusion to this intricate character play wonderfully realized. In its moments of male bonding, funny and charming though they are, Gran Torino is far less strong than those in which it fully embraces its darker themes. Benefiting from a delightfully self-referential Eastwood performance—look out for his nods to The Outlaw Josey Wales — this is a flawed offering from the director, but a strong one nonetheless.

[notification type=”star”]79/100 – Fitting in comfortably with Eastwood’s post-Blood Work output, Gran Torino again slowly builds an atmosphere of tragedy, its seriousness increasing as its narrative develops.[/notification]
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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.