Movies broadly fall into two categories; those which are forgotten as soon as you leave the cinema and those which stay with you for days, even weeks, after the event. Gran Torino is very much in the latter.
The appeal, prior to seeing this film, was largely Clint Eastwood and some good reviews and an impressive recent interview on Enough Rope. I’m old enough to carry warm memories of that wonderful series, Rawhide, in living black and white viewed on an ancient Astor (small screen) TV. Week after week, Gil Favor, Wishbone and the rest of the cast of this classic western thundered into our suburban lounge-room. However, in recent years, Eastwood has, seemingly quite easily, moved to more contemporary issues in his films. Gran Torino is very much in this vein and showcases Eastwood’s directing skills as well as his long-established ability in front of the cameras.
The opening scenes are of Walt Kolwaski’s wife’s funeral in the local Catholic Church, where the priest is a baby-faced newcomer who, at 27, is brilliantly juxtaposed with Walt, the Korean War veteran. His family are present amongst the mourners and we are very quickly introduced, humorously, to the particularly unattractive two sons and their respective families. Walt snarls his way through life; there isn’t much in his contemporary US that meets with his approval. There’s the demise of the local car industry in which he worked most of his life, (he’s a Ford man) and one of his sons has grown fat selling imported Asian vehicles and then there’s the decline of his mid-Western suburban neighbourhood. His traditional two-storey house stands as an isolated bastion of white, working-class home pride and patriotism with the Stars and Stripes proudly fluttering, whilst all around him the near identical neighbouring properties are falling rapidly into disrepair! His contemporaries have all forsaken the district in one way or another and been replaced by Hmong refugees from South East Asia, complete with a violent young gang which is terrorising the neighbourhood.
This movie works at so many different levels and communicates with a thoughtful balance of humour and pathos. The casting is exceptionally strong, though most of the supporting actors would be unknown to Australian audiences. The all-too familiar American clichés are steadfastly avoided and the script is tight and plausible. But above all, the message is clear, in an immigrant society such as the US or Australia, it’s always the most recent arrivals who cop the flack from the earlier immigrants. Walt has no difficulty relating to his Italian barber or the Irish building foreman, but the Hmong remind him all-too vividly of his foes in that Korean conflict, fifty-plus years ago. How Walt gradually mellows and, as an intelligent human being, starts to view his contemporary world more objectively, makes for an absorbing couple of hours. The attendant “education” of the “virgin” parish priest is equally believable and moving.
Go and see Gran Torino for wonderful, politically incorrect commentary on our contemporary society, or because you wish to experience a good news, uplifting story, or because you just admire Clint Eastwood. You will not be disappointed on any of these scores.
A true cinematic treat from a cinematic genius.
Reviewed by David Fallick