In the first moments of Gran Torino, retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) stands ramrod-straight at his beloved wife’s funeral as his granddaughter (Dreama Walker) arrives with a shirt that hikes up over her belly piercing and pulls out her mobile phone in church. Walt raises a lip and growls in acid disapproval – in exactly the manner Eastwood’s Dirty Harry did back in the day when he sighted a crime that needed to be fought with his Magnum .44. The look recurs throughout a film, which – if Eastwood were to retire, at least as an actor – could stand as a valedictory summation of his iconic image the way The Shootist was for John Wayne. Walt isn’t a cop or a cowboy, but is Clint Eastwood – a carved-in-stone screen presence who trails associations of past roles as he goes through any new story. Walt maintains Korean War weapons in the basement with his medals, though it turns out that he’s more traumatised than hardened by the killing he did fifty years ago, but his present life focuses more on the showpiece’72 Gran Torino — and the impressive array of DIY tools — in his garage.
Walt is estranged from upwardly-mobile, flabby, self-centered children and grandchildren, contemptuous of the boyish priest (Christopher Carley) his wife charged with looking in on him, and seethes with racist bile at the take-over of his blue-collar neighbourhood by ‘gooks’ and ‘chinks’. He’s the sort who pulls a gun when a punk steps on his lawn or hassles him on the street — which plays as well to movie audiences as it does to the solid citizen neighbours who make him a kind of hero — even if he is given to grumbling disapproval at their funny foreign ways (decapitating a chicken during a barbeque) and looking at curmudgeonly Asian grannies as if they were armed gang-members. Thao (Bee Vang), the fatherless kid next door, is pressured by his cousin Spider (Doua Moua) to join a street gang and set the task of stealing Walt’s Gran Torino as an initiation. Walt, who has stood down gang-banger kids of various ethnicities, catches the boy in the act – but, in a hint that he might not be invulnerable – trips over before he can inflict punishment.
Later, Thao’s dominant sister Sue (Ahney Her) delivers the boy to Walt to work off the shame doing odd jobs. In his contact with Thao and Sue, and their extended family, the dyed-in-the-wool racist gradually comes to realise the Asians who have taken over his neighbourhood embody values closer to his idea of America than his own relatives who have fled to the suburbs. Though Walt maintains non-stop racial abuse and stereotyping (calling Sue ‘Dragon Lady’ and Thao’s potential girlfriend Yum Yum), he even learns – as does the audience – about his neighbours’ specific ethnicity (they’re Hmong, who left Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam after fighting on the Americans’ side in the war) and aspects of their culture and social problems (‘Hmong girls go to college and the boys go to jail’). There’s a certain amount of comedy shock value in Walt’s pithy put-downs, which even extend to an idiot white kid (Scott Eastwood) who tries to talk like a black gang member in a street corner face-off, but scenes in which Walt and an Italian barber (John Carroll Lynch) exchange slurs are at once funny and show the character’s limitations: he can’t see that Poles and Italians have assimilated in America to the point where race-specific insults aimed at them are defanged, but more recently-arrived or historically oppressed non-white ethnic groups are still in a marginal position and liable to bristle at equivalent name-calling.
The gang keep escalating the feud, not attacking Walt but Thao’s family, and the set-up seems to echo the old vigilante mode of Eastwood’s ‘70s films, and such stand-against-the-thugs films as Death Wish or Boardwalk. As in The Shootist, Walt is coughing blood and confronting a possibly terminal disease that might incline him to go out in a blaze of glory, applying his old killing skills to an assault on Spider’s hang-out, rather than into hospital or (as his sons suggest) a nice retirement community. This goes beyond even Unforgiven in showing how the protagonist has been warped by violence done in the past, and the climax involves a martyrdom which ties up a surprisingly complex set of sub-plots in a satisfying, not-quite-expected manner. The disposition of the Gran Torino – which Walt is never seen driving – becomes a crucial element in the wrap-up. As director, Eastwood turns in one of his more focused, Don Siegel-like films – after the sprawling Changeling, this is a well-balanced, unfussy, unshowy piece of work, as solidly put together as the cars America used to make.