Gran Torino marks the return of Clint Eastwood. Not that he'd gone anywhere in the last couple of decades, but there's a whole generation of people who don't know Clint like I do. Of all the things one might think of when his name is mentioned, my mind always returns to the same image -- that of a music box. And inside my head, time slows to a crawl. I can hear the softly-sweet melody echoing through its mechanisms, and suddenly I know of nothing else. The rest of the world seems to melt away, and as its cadence begins to slow, I can feel my heart thumping in my chest and my palms beginning to sweat. Because once that music box ceases to lull me into a waking sleep, I know I'm a dead man.
Moments like that, and many others like it, are the reason I've missed Clint Eastwood. Don't get me wrong; he's a very good director, and I enjoy the films he's helmed quite a bit. But ever since Unforgiven, his Western magnum opus, I've been yearning for one last, great Clint movie. That's why I went into Gran Torino with such high hopes. So high, in fact, that it was almost certain I would be disappointed on some level. Yet somehow, Clint knew what I was thinking. He knew what I wanted so badly to see. Even if his exaggerated character has been toned down and, thankfully, made more realistic, you still know the man starring in Gran Torino is not one with whom you want to fuck. That's all I asked of him, and his answer was nothing short of amazing.
From the first shots of Clint sitting around his house, drinking a cold Pabst, you instantly understand his character. Retired and grieving over the recent loss of his wife, Clint's Walt Kowalski just wants to be left alone. Being a Korean war vet, he still harbors demons from his past and resents the gradual influx of Asian communities making a home in what used to be a predominantely white neighborhood. I'll get this out of the way now: this movie contains, bar none, the highest rate of per-sentence racial slurs I've ever heard. And I'll admit it -- I haven't laughed so hard with a drama in quite some time. The distinction here is laughing with, not at it. It's genuinely hilarious to hear him spout every name you could think of for an Asian person, to their face, like it was their first name. But you soon realize he's not a stone-cold racist, and he doesn't hate all Asian people with any imaginable passion. Once he gets to know the people surrounding him, he befriends them, and it's obvious he cares very much for their well-being.
The plot centers around Walt's neighbors and a kid named Thao who's being pressured to join a local gang. Their initiation requires him to steal Walt's prized Gran Torino, and needless to say, Walt isn't having any of that. Subsequently, the kid's family makes him apologize to Walt, and offers him as a worker to do whatever Walt needs done around the house. It's through this arrangement that the two become friends, and Walt decides to stop the gang from ever bothering Thao again. Walt's gradual change in attitude toward Thao and his family is a thing of beauty. No revelation is forced upon him that instantly makes him see anyone in a different light. You simply watch the more human, caring side of him emerge as he becomes closer with the people he spends his days with. But it's in trying to help Thao escape his possible gang involvement that he escalates the situation far beyond what anyone expected. The events that take place from this point on are where you get to see those glimpses of the old Clint. Without spoiling anything, someone's face definately gets beaten to a pulp.
But the most rewarding parts of this film aren't about violence. Instead, they're about the consequences of it. How far would you go to excercise your demons and protect someone you care about? This is a question asked with a deft hand, but the answer shouldn't be pondered until you've experienced everything the film has to offer. Another striking thing I should remark on is the supporting cast. I don't know the details, but it seems that the filmmakers decided to go with non-professional actors to fill out the roles surrounding Clint's. I think it created a sense of gravitas to their performances, and they felt like real people instead of actors playing a part. And there's something to be said for choosing authenticity over polished line readings when the occasion calls for it.
If Clint were to ever win a Best Actor Oscar, it should be for this film. He grunts and growls in typical Clint fashion, but underneath he displays the subtle emotions necessary to give a firmly believable and heart-felt performance. And with the film opening wide at the top of the box office, it's clear I'm not the only Clint Eastwood fan left in the world. Does he, at 78, still have room for one more great, shining moment? Clint knows your question.
And you shouldn't have to ask.