Gran Torino takes its title from a 1972 Ford beaut parked in a driveway — a fetish object and memento mori in this curious, striking drama directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. He plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed, retired autoworker alienated from his grown sons and just about everybody else. Walt spends most of his time growling, tinkering, mowing his postage-stamp lawn, and raging against a world that’s changed and won’t change back no matter how hard he glares. Change has certainly come to his run-down Detroit neighborhood: Hmong immigrants with strange, foreign ways have moved in. Next door, there’s a fatherless, multigenerational family that includes a quick-witted daughter (Ahney Her) and an uneasy younger teenage son (Bee Vang) who struggles to steer clear of the local Hmong gangbangers pressuring him to join them.
Walt thinks people stink. He’s obnoxiously rude to a baby-faced Catholic priest (Christopher Carley, with the puss of a young Spencer Tracy) who, fulfilling the dying request of Walt’s late wife, urges the SOB to go to confession. And the character regularly lets loose with such a vile spew of racist epithets that it’s clear Eastwood is looking to inflame the PC ears of a contemporary audience.
Then, when someone attempts to steal Walt’s prized car, the coiled Korean War vet reaches for his weapon. (A different Eastwood in a different movie might have rasped ”Do you feel lucky?”) But in the aftermath of his rage — as if breaking and entering were the only way to open the old man’s emotional door — this twisted, post-9/11 version of Dirty Harry warily develops a relationship with the strangers next door. The connection leads to — well, to a shocking spiritual salvation, in fact. And to gang warfare. And to a movie at once understated and radical, deceptively unremarkable in presentation and ballsy in its earnestness. Don’t let the star’s overly familiar squint fool you: This is subtle, perceptive stuff.
Eastwood has devoted his recent work to refracting the image of American men in decline. His movies, pared and sinewy in both production and performance style (with the exception of the 2008 showpiece Changeling), meditate on compromises and losses, and even (most memorably in Million Dollar Baby) on serious questions of religious faith. Gran Torino, though, grafts those signature late-career preoccupations onto a story that’s got the energy of a gangly youth, right down to the naturalistic performances by the mostly nonprofessional Hmong cast. The inquisitive script is by newcomer Nick Schenk, from a story by Schenk and fellow first-timer Dave Johannson — two talents lucky to dodge the indie virus that would surely have hit them had they aimed their script toward Sundance cred, tidy and full of lessons. Hey, punks: Do ya think many Sundance smoothies would dare set Dirty Harry among the Hmong? Well, do ya? A?