Thursday, February 9, 2012

100 Movies - No. 42: Gran Torino

42. Gran Torino (2008)
Drama, 116 minutes
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang and Ahney Her

Gran Torino was a total surprise to me when I first viewed it. I had no idea what it might be about and the cover suggested it would be an action movie. With Clint Eastwood being almost 80 years of age at the time, I couldn't see how it would work.

It turns out that it isn't an action movie at all. The main themes include age, the loss of a loved one, racism, friendship, family, religion, and personal growth.

Walt Kowalsky is a Korean war veteran and one of the last white people in a neighborhood mostly populated by Hmong residents. The film opens with his wife's funeral. He's suddenly friendless and alone, but for the unwanted attention of his two sons and their families, who see him as a burden and wonder what he'll leave them when he dies.

The local priest (Carley) promised Walt's wife that he would keep an eye on Walt and try to get him to go to confession. His immediate neighbors annoy him; especially when their boy, Thao (Vang), tries to steal his beloved '72 Gran Torino. To complete Walt's misery, he's coughing up blood and may not have long to live.

That all sounds pretty miserable, doesn't it? Despite the grim situation, Gran Torino has a great deal of (intelligent) humor. Walt doesn't pull his punches: he refers to Asians as Gooks and Blacks as Spooks. He tells the persistent priest that he's an "over-educated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of old ladies who are superstitious and promise them eternity." He speaks in grunts and snarls and seems to hate every person he deals with.

Walt is a complex character. His neighbors convince him to accept Thao's apology for trying to steal his car by offering the boy's labor for a week. Thao works hard and earns Walt's respect. The two actually develop a friendship of sorts and Walt also likes Thao's sister, Sue (Her). As unlikely as it may seem, from Walt's perspective, he finds that his neighbors are decent people and takes an interest in their lives. He finds that he has more in common with them than his own family.

I won't give away any more details, but the story shows how people still have the capacity for change, despite advanced age and a lifetime of behaving in a certain way. The humor is frequent, with Eastwood timing his lines perfectly. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this might just be Eastwood's best acting performance. It's certainly my favorite performance from those that I have seen.

If you like Gran Torino:

You can probably tell that I abhor racism if you look at some of the movies in this 100 movies list. For that reason, I can recommend El Norte and Freedom Writers.

Fans of Clint Eastwood will almost certainly like the five Dirty Harry movies. The first two in the franchise are the strongest.

Eastwood may be remembered more for his work as a director when he eventually retires and he's given us a number of thought-provoking films. He picked up Best Director Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby and both are worth your time. Of his more recent efforts, I appreciated the much-maligned Hereafter.

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