A Strange Review: Gran Torino

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“Everybody blames the Lutherans,” says Walt Kowalski, the aggressively surly and bigoted ex auto worker, to a young Asian girl whose family was brought to this country post-Vietnam by those damn Lutherans.

Kowalski, as played by Clint Eastwood, could have been Dirty Harry Callahan in another life. In fact he was Dirty Harry in another life. But the times, like the neighborhood, are changing, and so must Walt.

Gran Torino is at times funny, charming, tense, moving, and provides an explicitly Christian message about maturity and redemption.

It is also palpably, blatantly, consistently … phony. There wasn’t a single moment in this film, written by Nick Schenk and directed by Eastwood himself, when I didn’t feel manipulated and manhandled. And that’s a shame, as the theme is a noble one: reflection, restraint, and self-sacrifice in the face of evil — vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

As the film opens, Kowalski is at his wife’s funeral Mass, watching with thinly veiled disgust as his family piles into the pews, sports jerseys and belly-button rings and all. Eastwood’s signature scowl has grown audible by now, and his people skills are no better now than when he was torturing perps in San Francisco. He says little, and what he does say, whether to his own sons or to his Hmong neighbors, is often filled with menace and contempt. A Korean War vet with a trunk full of memories — many of them bad — Kowalski just wants to be left alone.

But of course the world has a way of intruding. One day he notices a fight breaking out between some Hmong gang-bangers and Thao, the shy, silent boy next door — the very kid Walt had caught trying to steal his prized 1972 Gran Torino just a few days before. Soon the boy’s family is involved — even the grandparents — until Walt steps in, Army rifle aimed. The hoods jump in their car and take off. The family cannot express their gratitude enough for saving them. Gifts, food, flowers pour in. Walt wants none of it. It all goes in the garbage. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He just wants to be left alone.

Shortly after saving Thao’s sister, Susan, from another group of lowlifes, Walt finds himself at his neighbors’ home for a fete. After committing all manner of faux pas, a shaman gives him a “spiritual reading” and tells him everything about his life and his pain. Walt is both fascinated and repulsed. “I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own family!” He soon finds himself being fed till bursting by a group of old ladies who have dragged him into the kitchen to put some meat on his scraggly bones. The native Hmong dishes, which he insists on referring to as “dog,” prove to be to his liking. He loosens up, and the scowl turns into a smile. Walt has made peace with the foreigners at last! Everybody say, “Awwwwwww….”

And I didn’t believe a minute of it. We had just been treated to a good half-hour of nonstop Archie Bunker-esque racial and ethnic epithets so over the top and forced that you would have thought you were watching a movie from the late ’70s/early ’80s about how the lost and lonely white man is transformed into an enlightened and sensitive being by someone of another race, gender, or religion. Walt’s sudden transformation is simply not earned dramatically. It’s necessary for the narrative to take shape, but it never feels real. (One particularly contrived bit of business occurs when Walt’s son and daughter-in-law offer to send him to a high-class nursing home — on his birthday. I’m sorry, but they can’t be that clueless not to know that Walt would not take kindly to such a suggestion — and on his birthday at that — or that he is the last person in the world who would need such tending.)

(To read more, which will include DEFINITE spoilers, click here …)Even the tension in this film isn’t earned, only borrowed. All you have to do to keep an audience on the edge of their seats is create a confrontation between a weakling kid and a gang of bullies, throw in a tough guy who intercedes, and drag out the story line until the final, inevitable, predictable confrontation between all concerned. End credits …

So you know those Hmong gang-bangers — who put Thao up to trying to steal Walt’s Gran Torino in the first place — are coming back to get him. To get someone. And when they do, it’s ugly. Very ugly. And this sits very uncomfortably alongside the humor in this film, which at times is just downright goofy. When Thao’s family insists that Thao restore the family honor and work off his debt for trying to steal the Gran Torino, Walt decides to make the kid his project. He’s going to teach him a skill, a trade. He’s also going to teach him to stop slouching and start walking and talking like a man. (A scene in an Italian barber’s shop, wherein he and Walt try and show Thao how real men talk to each other, was reminiscent of the scene in The Birdcage where Robin Williams tries to teach Nathan Lane how to walk like the uber-heterosexual John Wayne.)

When the final showdown at the Nothing’s OK Coral finally comes, there’s something creepy and, again, cardboard about it. Thao’s house is shot up one night and Thao’s sister is raped by the gang-bangers, who did not take kindly to Walt’s beating the crap out of one of their own after they drilled a hole in Thao’s face with a lit cigarette. So now Thao, schooled in old-fashioned macho-man American manhood, wants revenge. He wants Walt to get out that Army rifle of his and go with him to the gang’s hangout and start blowing some heads off. And Walt leads him — and us — to believe he’s going to do it too.

But not quite. Here is where the film moves from The Karate Kid in reverse to Sling Blade. Walt, who’s been coughing up blood for some time now, knows the end is near. He has been living with the guilt of crimes committed during the war for more than 50 years, and there is little time left to find some inner peace. The baby-faced Catholic priest who has been hounding Walt to seek sacramental absolution and relieve himself of his burden finally hears Walt’s confession. But there is nothing in it about the war — past or future. The priest knows Walt’s up to something. He fears he’s going to take justice, vengeance, into his own hands.

And he’s right.

After getting himself fitted with a custom-made suit and locking Thao in his basement to make sure he can’t follow, Walt shows up on the doorstep of the gang-bangers — and offers himself up as a sacrifice. Like Carl in Sling Blade, who sacrificed his freedom to spare a boy a life of abuse, Walt sacrifices himself for a kid who looks just like the one he blew away for no good reason in Korea.

As Walt lies cruciform on the ground, the police arrive and haul off the thugs.”They’ll be going away for a good long time,” a police officer says. Thao is saved from a life of crime, and his family is saved from a life of perpetual fear and abuse. And Walt dies the hero he he’d been running from all his life.

Eastwood continues to redefine both his onscreen image and the idea of what it means to be tough, brave, and masculine. It can’t always be about avenging wrongs through bigger and badder acts of violence. It is in sometimes about pulling back, thinking things through, and considering the potential collateral damage. And sometimes it’s even about turning the other cheek.

There was much to admire and think about in the spiritual arc of this character; unfortunately, it’s hung on the hook of a crude, cheesy melodrama. Christians will find much to discuss about what constituted Walt’s “redemption” — his final confession? his sacrifice? his self-awareness? (“I’m not a good guy,” he tells Susan at one point.)

Eastwood is fun to watch, most probably because of the history we already have with him, stretching back to his days as a Leone anti-cowboy in the 1960s. But this is the kind of role he can play in his sleep. It’s the theme that’s stretching, not his acting chops. A “We support our country and our troops” sign is displayed prominently in the window of a store Walt enters — no accident on Eastwood’s part, I’m sure. And yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was also telling his fellow patriots that going to war is no small thing, that you need patience and forethought and a real call to self-sacrifice, because it’s “a helluva thing, killin’ a man.”

We got the message, loud and clear, Clint. I only wish it had been conveyed by a vehicle other than this Gran Torino