Gran Torino is like its star Clint Eastwood. It is lean and mean and stark and lanky. It possesses the austerity, the refusal to waste a word, to waste a movement, which comes naturally with maturity. It may well be the best movie of Eastwood’s career. It certainly is one of the best movies of 2008.
I remember first watching the trailer and thinking Eastwood had gone too far. I feared he had finally and fully become a victim of self-parody. Watching the movie washed those fears away. Yes, the squint of his eyes, the grumble of his voice, and the stoic firmness of his stance is every tough guy he’s ever played rolled into one. But it had to be that way. It’s a case of persona meeting character head on, to perfection.
Eastwood portrays Walt, a veteran of the Korean War and of many years working the production line for Ford. The Gran Torino of the title is his prized memento from the old days. He installed the steering column himself. And his hanging onto that 1972 automobile and keeping it like new is emblematic of his character. He is a man out of time. He’s hanging onto the past with all his might while everything around him changes.
His dog is as old in dog years as Walt is in people years and they both show it. They both have the stiffness that keeps a body at rest and the dogged determination to keep going once in motion. His dog could easily pass for his shadow, a constant reminder of his state of health. And that state of health has seen better days.
He doesn’t sit on his porch downing a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon to take in the sights – mostly a crumbling house across the street. He sits to avoid standing. He doesn’t eat beef jerky out of love for dried meat. He eats it to make trips to the grocery store unnecessary. He avoided the doctor for three years out of weariness – or was it fear? That’s real blood he keeps coughing up into his hanky.
Walt is racist. He spits out racial slurs at neighbors, passersby, his barber, and anyone else within range with astonishing casualness and fluidity. He has turned racism into an art form, even teaching his speech patterns to the young man next door as a right of initiation into manhood. But, he’s not happy. His behavior torments his every waking moment. Something happened to him in Korea that he can’t shake and racism is his defense mechanism.
Walt has lived in the same house for 50 years. His garage is filled with tools to prove it. That house has remained the same and Walt has remained the same, but the neighborhood hasn’t. As if his war experiences are determined to close in around him, his home is now surrounded by a ghetto. Asians, blacks, and Hispanics swirl around him, some of them vicious gang members and some offering friendship and flowers and lots of food. The challenge he faces is letting go of his hatred so he may recognize and accept that friendship.
The movie opens with a funeral for Walt’s wife. He later admits, tearfully, that getting her to have him was the best thing he ever accomplished. Her dying words to her priest were to help Walt and to not give up on the old cuss. She knew Walt would need all the help he could get to come to peace with the worst thing he ever accomplished in his life, long ago and far away on Korean soil.