By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARS Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang
Clint Eastwood has stated that Gran Torino might mark his final appearance as an actor (he plans to keep directing), and if he sticks to his guns, it’s an appropriate way to end a magnificent career. In that respect, it brings to mind John Wayne’s swan song, the elegiac Western The Shootist (directed, incidentally, by Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel), as both movies deal with aging men – and we’re talking about the actors as well as the characters they’re portraying – whose lifelong dalliances with violence finally lead to both an understanding and acceptance of sorts.
It’s not necessary to be familiar with Eastwood’s career arc to enjoy Gran Torino, but it does amplify the appreciation for the manner in which the topic of violence is approached. From the glorified gun battles in the Dirty Harry franchise to the ruminations about the impact of taking a man’s life in Unforgiven, Eastwood has clearly given much thought to the subject, and he takes another step with this latest picture. To describe how he has continued to modify his beliefs would spoil the film’s ending, but suffice to say that his character, Walt Kowalski, is no stranger to killing. A Korean War vet, the recently widowed Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood in which he’s clearly in the minority. Surrounded by Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, he’s an unrepentant racist, although he doesn’t have much use for his own kind, either: Caring little for his two grown sons and their families, he instead prefers the company of his faithful dog and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. But his shell of indifference begins to crack once he comes into reluctant contact with the two Hmong kids who live next door, teenage siblings Thao and Sue (appealing newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her).
Lazily dismissed in some camps as merely a simplistic rift on racism, Gran Torino is far more complicated than that, not only in its aforementioned exploration of violence but also in its affecting look at a rigid individual who slowly comes to realize that the world has moved on without him. The picture does have its weak spots: Walt’s family members are cartoonish in the extreme, while conversations with a concerned priest (Christopher Carley) were already given airtime in the auteur’s Million Dollar Baby. But there’s no quibbling over Eastwood’s performance, which ranks as one of the finest of his career. If this is indeed his final farewell, he’s managed to go out, appropriately enough, with a bang.