(Originally published in the Ogden Independent, February 2009)
By Don Porter
While it would doubtless comfort an enlightened soul to believe that bigots like Walt Kowalski, Clint Eastwood’s racist in “Gran Torino,” are fast-fading relics of a troubled American past, it also would be delusional. Racial hatred – fueled by the ignorance to which it is welded – is not a fading characteristic of our national character.
That much of “Gran Torino” rings true.
Walt is a brutal, mirthless echo of Archie Bunker. The film introduces him as a solitary, scowling figure at his long-suffering wife’s funeral, a woman we gather did not endorse her husband’s xenophobic fury. But his rage is not confined to those who don’t share his white skin. As his children and grandchildren take their seats, the bile of disapproval gurgles in his throat: He actually growls in response to the sight of his own blood. They don’t live up. But, we realize soon enough, in Walt’s view nobody ever does.
Walt’s castle is a modest postwar two-story in a Detroit neighborhood that’s quickly transforming from a white working-class enclave to one increasingly populated with Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia. Walt, a retired Ford assembly-line laborer, spends his days spewing racial epithets to the faces of his neighbors, as well as behind their backs. Mainly, he seems preoccupied with keeping them off his lawn.That kind of attitude has to spring from somewhere. And we find out soon enough: Though 50-plus years removed from his Korean War combat experience, Walt continues to lug with him everywhere the burden of guilt and pride – a combustible combination, that -- of his wartime service.
The film’s plot is set in motion late one night when Walt catches his young next-door neighbor Thao trying to steal the old vet’s cherry ’72 Gran Torino. Typical of Walt’s disproportionate responses to almost everything, he responds by shoving a loaded rifle in the boy’s face. Why? Walt loves that car more than anything else on God’s green earth. It is the film’s primary metaphor: This less-than-classic automobile is a relic of a past when Detroit made vehicles that guaranteed mechanics a good living. (I know; in high school, I owned, and was constantly repairing, a ’72 Gran Torino.) It stands as an emblem of a shopworn, discredited past, which efficiently and obviously reflects Walt’s outlook on life.
Eastwood, also directing here, works from a script that’s the equivalent of a bullhorn in the debate over immigration, white flight and cultural diversity. The director’s faithfulness to the textual blueprint offers precious little artfulness or subtlety regarding the film’s overriding themes – family relationships, interracial struggle, gang culture, religion and so on. As such, the movie ranks as a lesser accomplishment on the filmmaker’s resume.
But as so often happens even when Eastwood stumbles, it’s still interesting to watch the fall. Though a fairly standard tale of redemption, Eastwood makes sure the going is never easy. For one thing, the film functions as a thesaurus for racist slang -- a surprising percentage of which is inappropriately played for laughs. But as Walt is inevitably drawn into the lives of his neighbors, who are not played sickening-sweet as similar characters have been in other films, he remains true to his generally loathsome self: ugly, irascible.
There is no joining of the hands, singing of “Kumbaya” or easy resolution to the various disputes at work in “Gran Torino.” While that is laudable and rare in a work of mass-market entertainment, it’s the way Eastwood – especially late-career Clint – usually approaches his prickly subject matter.
One other thing: With all the chatter about Eastwood saying this could be his swan song as an actor, there had been a lot of talk about him deserving an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and the real possibility of his first acting Oscar. He didn’t get the nod, and you can’t blame Oscar voters – his fellow actors in the nominating round – one bit. He does solid work here, but it’s not among his very best work. It would have been a career tribute – like John Wayne winning for “True Grit” instead of “Red River” or “The Searchers,” or Henry Fonda winning for “On Golden Pond” rather than “The Grapes of Wrath” or “12 Angry Men.” The Academy blew its chance by not giving Eastwood the golden statue for “Tightrope” or “Unforgiven” or even “Million Dollar Baby.” Here’s hoping he stands before the cameras again, and gives a performance worthy of that elusive win.