Clint Eastwood is going out of business. After six decades, the international screen icon is closing the door on his acting career, and everything must go. There will be no more westerns: Unforgiven (1992) said everything Eastwood had left to say on the subject of that tradition. The Bridges of Madison County (1995) gave us the last of his romantic leads; Space Cowboys (2000) his last laugher, and Million Dollar Baby (2004) his final dramatic character study.
Which brings us to Gran Torino, a two-fer in the finale department. The character the 78-year-old actor plays in his latest film (which he also directed) is not named Callahan — he’s a retired Detroit auto worker and Korean War vet by the name of Walt Kowalski — but he is, for all practical purposes, a septuagenarian Dirty Harry. According to industry reports, this is not just Eastwood’s final performance as an urban avenger but his final performance, period.
So perhaps we can forgive the filmmaker the modest excess of sentimentality that infuses this on-screen swan song, as does his determination to craft a work of cinema that is at once crowd pleasing, chapter closing and Important.
Walt is the Old World learning slowly but surely that he must make way for the new. The picture opens with the funeral of his wife, where he is visibly distraught, though not entirely for the reasons one might expect. He has little patience with his two middle-aged sons, whom he considers self-absorbed and soft. He growls when his niece wears a belly-baring blouse to the ceremony, and later spits when the young girl asks him what will become of his cherry-red 1972 Gran Torino after he dies. He has zero use for the twentysomething priest and his eulogy about the ways death is both bitter and sweet.
The old guy spends most days surveying modern America from his front porch, guzzling Pabst in the company of his yellow Lab, and not at all liking what he sees. Over the years, his fellow Ford assembly-line buddies have moved away or died, and the neighborhood has acquired an ethnic diversity he views as an unwelcome development. He is aggrieved by the fact that, in addition to blacks and Latinos, Hmong immigrants have made themselves at home. He is especially unhappy about the family that has moved next door, consisting of an older woman, her daughter and her two kids — an aimless, introspective son, Thao (Bee Vang); and a spunky, whip-smart daughter, Sue (Ahney Her).
Worlds collide when Hmong gang members attempt forcibly to recruit the boy, and in the process cross the Kowalski property line. “Get off my lawn,” Walt snarls, leveling one of his several imposing firearms at the incredulous intruders, before adding, “We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea and use you for sandbags.” To his initial dismay, his actions make him a hero to the family and their community. Flowers appear on his porch, endless dishes of Asian delicacies make their way into his home, and Thao is dispatched to repay his debt by doing odd jobs for the resistant racist.
And then the script by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk suddenly shifts gears, and Gran Torino morphs into a touching tale of friendship. Walt never entirely stops referring to Thao and Sue as “slopes,” “gooks” and “fishheads” — but we’re to understand that, at this stage of his personal evolution, he does so with gruff affection, the same way he calls his barber a “stupid dago.” He allows the girl to teach him her people’s customs and becomes a father figure to the boy, fixing him up with a construction job with help from an old friend he lovingly addresses as “you drunken Irish goon.”
Then, precisely when you’d swear we can all just get along, Schenk practically strips the picture’s narrative gears, once more barreling Gran Torino off in a totally different direction. Faster than you can say “Make my day,” the gang commits a sickening act of violence against the family, and Eastwood is in a pickup speeding deep into Dirty Harry territory. I doubt a single member of the audience will wonder about what’s going to happen next. And guess what: Virtually every single one is guaranteed to be taken by surprise. The script has its shortcomings. The climactic sequence is not one of them.
Eastwood has directed finer films and delivered richer performances. I wasn’t at all impressed the first time I took in Gran Torino, but have to admit it’s grown on me with subsequent viewings. For all the film’s flaws, there’s something undeniably right about the way Eastwood brings down the curtain on this particular aspect of his iconic persona. It’s a cinematic moment of historic significance, even if the movie that gives it to us never quite manages to be Important on its own terms.