It is remarkable to consider the gifts of Clint Eastwood, a man with a near miraculous ability to tap into the ideological mainstream of American life while offering enough of a critique to justify it as art. Gran Torino is focused on the final days of a typical Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski. A veteran of the Korean war, Kowalski delivers profanity monologues on respectively the “gooks”, “zipper-heads” and “chinks” rife with squints, scowls and even growls in the iconic manner of Dirty Harry. One is left with the impression that all he wants out of life is for people to stay off his lawn, leaving him alone with his demons from the war and the grief resulting from his wife Dorothy’s death.
Nevertheless, the world refuses to leave him with his misery when a neighboring Hmong boy, Thao, attempts to steal his beloved Ford Gran Torino, a vintage muscle car Kowalski himself helped assemble during his time at Ford. Kowalski then deals with Thao’s family with a mix of paternal care and knee jerk racism. Noble acts such as saving Thao’s sister Sue from thugs harassing her on the street and providing Thao with a guiding male presence he never had are offset by crude evocations of stereotypes such as instructing the hmongs to stay away from his dog when he learns of an ongoing barbeque. Eventually, Walt cannot help but be thrust into the middle of the conflict involving a local Hmong gang and Thao that brings out the heart of his character.
It is all too easy and painfully reductionist to dismiss Walt as the archetypical American stoic Eastwood has made a career out of perfectly capturing on celluloid. In fact, it is precisely the well worn familiarity of the narrative that lends the film potency. Gran Torino is one of the few films to zestfully tap into the vein of the American soul in a time when citizens are increasingly devoid of national spirit. Everything about the film is an espousal of every classical value. When Thao asks Walt what about the type of work he should do. Walt vouches for Thao and gets him a job in construction, deriding how his son works in sales. It is a casual remark but it appeals to the American ethos of a generation past, valuing the creation of something material (construction, building cars) rather than the shuffling of immaterial goods such as credit default swaps.
Furthermore, Walt fights not out of anger but a sense of steadfast moral determination for Thao to live in peace. A sentiment that harkens back to a time when America did not rush headlong into wars full of misplaced Jingoism. In the same way that Walt attempts to teach his spoiled grandchildren about modesty and manners, Eastwood seems to be firing a blast square into the heart of the current culture. Gran Torino demands much of the viewer. It requires one to not only begrudgingly accept racism and proud political incorrectness but laugh at and even celebrate it. Yet, the film’s pleasures extend far beyond that. It captures one’s emotions and attention almost subliminally, through a series of exceedingly creative racial epithets and quick shots of Walt’s blood on his napkin only to deliver a searing indelible gut punch of an ending. Gran Torino ends as an ideal symbiosis of character, film and director.