Meet Walt Kowalski: Korean War vet, retired autoworker, widower, ornery racist coot.
Walt can’t stand the people crowding into his suburban Detroit home for his wife’s wake, and they’re relatives and friends; don’t even get him started on the Hmong family moving in next door. (He’ll get himself started, thank you.) But he’s played by Clint Eastwood, in a movie Eastwood directed, so no matter what kind of bastard Walt is, you know you’re probably going to like him.
With his wife gone, all Walt really wants to do is sit on the porch swigging PBRs and muttering spiteful pronouncements to his loyal yellow Lab, Daisy, who absorbs them without judgment. (Yes, the ballots already have been mailed, but with Gran Torino, Marley & Me and Wendy and Lucy in theaters all at once, the Academy still has time to consider adding an award for best supporting pooch.) Walt has kids, who’ve grown puffy and complacent as they’ve grown up, and grandkids, who seem like an old man’s nightmare of bratty entitlement. He also has an unseasoned young priest (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt’s wife to get him into confession, and hovers accordingly.
And then there are the new neighbors. When one of them, a sensitive kid named Thao (Bee Vang), shows up at Walt’s door, the old man barks, “Have some respect, zipperhead. We’re in mourning here.” The self-incriminating irony of that line is lost on Walt, of course, but not on Eastwood, who became famous in part by knowing how to play seething intolerance for laughs, and who seems–at least at first–to intend his reportedly final film performance as satirically comedic. Not at all a bad idea.
Walt’s worldview has calcified into a constant pose, the maintenance of which is obviously much easier for him than that of his actual feelings. He also maintains two objects of apparent sentimental value: the M-1 rifle that he carried in combat and the muscle car, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino, that signifies his former company’s long-gone glory days. And when Thao, under initiation pressure from his gangbanger cousin, tries to steal the latter, he finds himself staring down the barrel of the former, right into Walt’s beady, glaring eyes.
Assuming your willingness to indulge it, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As it happens, Walt’s growling, gun-toting machismo becomes a form of protection for Thao against his cousin’s gang, for which the boy’s family feels indebted. So, as a gesture of apology and goodwill, Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) patiently insists that Thao shall now be at Walt’s service.
Walt responds precisely in the manner of Dirty Harry having a new partner assigned: reluctantly putting Thao to work on a few odd jobs and eventually–inevitably–deciding to try and man the kid up. This involves loaning Thao tools, exposing him to the crassly joshing rapport between Walt and his barber (John Carroll Lynch), and brusquely advising him on the matter of talking to girls. Meanwhile Sue gets a rescue of her own, gets wise to Walt’s posturing, and gets him over to her house, where he realizes, in the movie’s most tonally exact line, that “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled rotten family…Jesus Christ!” A hateful geezer, yes, but a hateful geezer of, um, honor? As the plot thickens, he’ll have a chance to prove it.
Never mind that Archie Bunker had this routine down when Gran Torinos still were fresh on Ford’s assembly line. You will show respect to His Clintness. And besides, the film goes further–deeper and darker–than a sitcom ever could, limning the troubled legacy of tribalist masculinity rituals, positing vigilantism as racial anxiety and fear of progress, yadda yadda yadda.
In other words, Gran Torino squanders some of the penance it pays for Eastwood’s previous directorial effort, the dully clunky Changeling, by deciding that satirically comedic is unsustainable. Then it goes and gets all leadenly heavy and redemptive instead.
Eastwood’s affable no-nonsense aura includes rumors that he resists messing with writers’ scripts and isn’t above shooting from a first draft. In rookie screenwriter Nick Schenck’s case, that would be a mixed blessing. But really, so what if the material and the performances are uneven? To be the perfectly career-summarizing Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino needn’t be perfect. Likeably rough is enough.