Every grumpy old white man will have his day, but Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino begins on the day after. A Korean War veteran, retired Ford factory worker, and newly-made widower, Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski wants to spend his remaining days doing what he loves best: chain-sipping PBRs on his Detroit porch, hurling racial epithets at his immigrant Hmong neighbors, and rising occasionally from his chair to retrieve his shotgun and get some hoodlums off his lawn. But when the kid next door tries to steal his mint-condition muscle car as a gang initiation rite, Walt makes it his project to reform the boy–which means remaking him in his own image.
On paper, Gran Torino is hokey, racist, and hopelessly out of date. On screen, it is all of those things too, but as directed by Eastwood, it is a movie that is as painfully self-conscious as Unforgiven (1992). Beneath its B-movie conventions (don’t let the contemporary urban setting fool you, this is a Western too) Gran Torino has a jaundiced, deconstructive sense of purpose. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the movie’s eponymous Ford was never exactly the automaker’s best model.
Changeling, Eastwood’s previous effort, released just two months ago, was, to say the least, subpar. And while Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) were Oscar-nabbing critical darlings, they’re both pretty mawkish–all gloom and no gravitas.. Suffice to say that Gran Torino is necessarily smaller in scope than his 2006 World War II double-header of Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. But this film is arguably Eastwood’s strongest feature since A Perfect World (1993), another movie about a surrogate father-son relationship that remains his most underrated work as a director. The masculine, middle-class American Dream Walt once pursued–of having a good job, owning a decent car, and finding the right girl–may have looked quaint to us a few years ago. But given the uncertain economic future that both we and Walt are staring at, it now looks to have been a comparative perfect world.–Benjamin Strong