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Dustin Putman

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Gran Torino  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch, William Hill, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, Choua Kue, Scott Eastwood, Sonny Yue.
2008 – 116 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 4, 2008.
In recent years, Clint Eastwood has begun to act less and less, but picked up the pace on his career as a tenacious and diverse filmmaker who has refused to let his age (he's edging toward eighty) get in the way of his talent for telling great stories. 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," 2006's "Letters from Iwo Jima," and 2008's "Changeling" are superbly mounted pictures with a prestige that comes off as authentic rather than prefabricated. For "Gran Torino," a comparatively shakier but still more than worthwhile effort, Eastwood steps in front of the camera once again to play a spectacular role that seems almost tailor-made for him. If this were to be his swan song as a performer (granted, there's no real evidence that it will be), it would stand as an honorable tribute to a man and persona whose macho toughness and swagger never got in the way of his underlying humanity.

Walter Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a stubborn, unapologetically racist Korean War veteran who growls and grumbles his way through life. At his beloved wife's wake, he can barely get through the day being around the rest of the family, including two grown sons that he has failed to ever connect with. When he goes outside, he is disgusted at the mere sight of the Hmong family living next door. He's a miserable man, lonely and crass, but beneath that is someone who has been held prisoner by his guilt for the war atrocities he committed fifty years ago.

After saving the Hmong family's introverted teenage son, Thao (Bee Vang), from an attack by his cousin and gang of thugs, Walt is showered with food and gifts that he adamantly tells them he doesn't want. He wants to be left alone, plain and simple, but Thao's sweet-natured sister Sue (Ahney Her) sees through his hardened facade. It is because of her conviction that Walt finally accepts her invitation to come over for a family get-together. Suddenly placed in a situation and around an ethnicity of people he never thought he'd find himself within, Walt little by little starts to shed the hate he's carried around with him. As he befriends Thao and Sue, who ask for nothing from him except his acceptance, he realizes that they feel more like kin to him than his sons ever did.

The first half of "Gran Torino" plays a little awkwardly, the viewer unsure how to take the lead character. Set in his ways, Walt walks around spouting off venomous and derogatory racial comments to everyone he comes across. This includes Sue and Thao, who dish it out just as well as they take it. Even his genial Caucasian barber (John Carroll Lynch) isn't safe. As Walt becomes protective of Sue and Thao, he allows himself to soften, cheering up enough to temporarily forget how lost he is without his wife by his side. Narrative developments are frequently strained in the film's opening hour, serving to push the story forward. The machinations of the plot creak—Walt always seems to be in the right place at the right time in order to help people in danger or witness acts of kindness that warm him to races other than his own—and the "kumbayah" mentality admittedly gets to be a bit much.

The second hour improves considerably, aiding what has come before it, as conflict sets in and enough time has been spent with Walter to be able to figure him out. When the same gang's harassment of Thao and his family turns violent, Walter takes it very personally. With his life already on the line—he has received grave news from the doctors—he has no choice but to make amends with his past before making his next move. What Walter does next will not be revealed, but the movie bypasses the expectation that the picture is about to become a sort of "Death Wish" vigilante thriller and enters into territory altogether more penetrating and lyrical.

Worn, weary, and energetically cantankerous, Clint Eastwood gives a fierce, uncompromising performance as Walter Kowalski. As gruff and insufferable as the one-of-a-kind character is at the onset, he is just as endearing and poignant by the end. It's a turn not easily forgotten, from an actor who never will be. As Father Janovich, a young priest who advises Walter and recognizes the struggle in his eyes, Christopher Carley (2007's "Lions for Lambs") essays a positive representation of a man of faith who isn't defined strictly by his religion. Having never acted before, Bee Vang and Ahney Her mightily impress as Thao and Sue. Both are unaffected and smart in the choices they make, and strike few false notes.

"Gran Torino," named after the irresistible classic car Walter owns, isn't always on sure footing—the movie's lessons about tolerance are portrayed with a sometimes unconvincing patness—but it is absorbing. The ending, segueing into the Oscar-worthy title original song, sung by Jamie Cullum and Don Runner and co-written by Eastwood and his son Kyle, is impeccable, helping to lessen the impact of its earlier contrivances. Clint Eastwood, directing himself, is the main attraction, and his Walter's redemptive journey through the course of the film is where its true, unforced power lies.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman