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Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Clint Eastwood, the director, fan. Mystic River was one of my favorite films from its release year and Million Dollar Baby deserved much of its acclaim, if not the actual best picture Oscar. However, Gran Torino is getting buzz like crazy. It hasn’t even opened wide yet and already ranks #184 of all time on IMDB. I’ll agree that it is a very good movie, well composed and paced with a fantastic final act; I just can’t quite allow myself to call it a masterpiece. As I said, I’m a fan of Eastwood the director, not necessarily Eastwood the actor, and, with his performance here as Walt, I won’t be changing that mindset. I found myself laughing more often at his growls and scowls than feeling fear or menace. He isn’t the only one at fault, though; I think everyone falls pretty flat acting-wise here. I’ll give the Hmong characters some slack being that they aren’t trained actors, but instead authentic people from that culture, and kudos to the filmmakers for going that route. As for our lead, the priest (a very uninspired Christopher Carley), and even a couple good actors as Walt’s sons in very limited roles, I found their performances detracting from a solid story.

What I liked about Gran Torino was its humor. You may be thinking: what is this guy talking about? But honestly, I laughed a lot, and I think it was intentional. The first three-quarters set up the climax to be powerfully dramatic with much deserved weight and as a result needs to have an infusion of levity to keep us off-guard when the bottom finally falls out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Clint decided to act as Walt rather than find a better actor because he just wanted to have fun with racial epithets—boy there are plenty. His utter disregard for the opinions of those he insults and his overly tough exterior just make the words funny to me. Many times he is saying these things because that is “how men talk” with friends. His comradery with folks allow him the freedom to act like a bigot without recourse, (my favorite character in the film being one of these men, John Carroll Lynch’s barber, who is involved in a priceless scene with Clint and Bee Vang as Thao), and that lightness makes his under-the-breath tirades become acceptable. Now, they aren’t acceptable as far as societal right and wrong, but his character is built to be this Korean War vet, an old and bitter man, so you almost have to give him the benefit of the doubt. In his mind, the country he fought for is now being over-run by those he was ordered to kill. Seeing the denigration of his neighborhood and the utter lack of respect on behalf of the youth, he paints the simple picture that it’s all a result of the turning tides of immigration.

This humor, I believe, is what makes the ending so effective. Eastwood goes through a transformation from old man that wants to be left alone, to old man that finally has someone he can be a father to. Does it change his attitude or demeanor? Absolutely not. Does Eastwood have the acting range to make that evolution apparent on screen if necessary? Probably not, so let’s say it was good that while he softened to the Asians living next door, he never let his guard down … that would have just come off as inauthentic and manipulative. By getting to understand Walt Kowalski’s character, however, allows us to believe he would do what he does. Never clicking with his own sons, never being able to be a father to them and listened to for his experiences made him distant to them. Coming into the life of a traditional Hmong family, on-the-other-hand, allows him to finally feel that patriarchal duty. Ahney Her’s Sue tells Walt that she wishes her own father were more like him because he was too old-school for a boy like Thao. Walt is confused thinking that he is set in the old ways too, but Sue shows the cultural disparity by saying, “but you’re American”. The customs and way of life are different, and after all these years blaming the Orient for making him into a killer, a sinner, Walt can open his eyes to the humanity they all share.

While the gang backdrop really just stands as a way to give Walt a measure of redemption, it is the main catalyst for all that happens in the film. He never would have gotten to know the Lor family if Thao wasn’t made to steal his Gran Torino as a gang initiation, and the conclusion never would have happened if the bond between he and Sue and Thao hadn’t sprung out from that event. The film is not about the opposition and violence of those street thugs, though, it is about the relationship of Walt and Thao. While the script does wonders at making that friendship work, the acting just doesn’t do it justice. Again, I found myself laughing each time Clint scowled at the boy—it was just too over the top. And unfortunately for Bee Vang, his delivery came across as staged and reading from a prompter. He is young, though, and inexperienced in acting, so I can’t blame him too much. Instead I blame Eastwood, especially in one instance when Vang is locked in the old man’s basement, screaming at Clint to let him out. The anger and frustration is so forced that the director should have known when to cut. Yet Eastwood not only shows us the pounding on the door once, but a second time after he comes back into frame to explain what it feels like to kill a man, this time lingering on the boy even longer. It’s a moment like this that brings an amateur quality to an otherwise stellar tale, making the sub-par performances overshadow the tightly constructed plot.

Gran Torino 7/10

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photography:
[1] CLINT EASTWOOD stars as Walt Kowalski in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “Gran Torino,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Thao (BEE VANG) and Walt Kowalski (CLINT EASTWOOD) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “Gran Torino,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo by Anthony Michael Rivetti

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