Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It happened five and a half years ago — the one and only time I sneaked into a movie theater. I bought a ticket to see Coraline at a multiplex, and when it was over I found my way into a nearby auditorium for the start of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. To this day, I have no regrets about which of those movies I gave my money to. But I enjoyed both. Seeing Gran Torino with an appreciative audience certainly helped. Basically every racial epithet Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski spews in the film was met with laughter, presumably of the “We know this is wrong, but an old guy being politically incorrect is amusing” variety. The word at the time was that this film did for Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona what Unforgiven had done for the Man with No Name. I saw the film as an interesting send-off for Eastwood’s acting career — well-made but not great. Until this week, I hadn’t given the film a second look, so I was intrigued to find out how different my perspective on it would be.
Walt Kowalski, an old Korean War veteran, finds himself living alone after the death of his wife. Walt is annoyed to see that an Asian immigrant community has moved into his neighborhood, but he tries to ignore them. When a young man named Thao tries to steal his 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, however, Walt gets involved. The rest of the story consists of both sides offering something to the other. From the Hmong people, Walt gets some lessons in tolerance and the understanding of another culture, as well as absolution for his lingering guilt over his war experiences. Meanwhile, Walt manages to clean up the Hmong’s dilapidated, crime-ridden neighborhood.
There’s definitely a little of Harry Callahan in Walt, and the most interesting aspect of the film is seeing a prejudiced lone wolf survivor calcify into a bitter old grump. The climactic sacrifice, while extremely heavy on the Christ symbolism, is a satisfying final twist to the question of how many bullets Harry has left. Despite all that, the true analog for Gran Torino is The Shootist, directed by Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel and starring Eastwood’s predecessor in the role of the rugged American hero, John Wayne. That film opened with footage from earlier John Wayne Westerns, establishing it as the swan song for both the actor and the character he played. Gran Torino is likewise about Eastwood the icon approaching death after a long, violent life. Hoping to make a positive contribution that will outlive him, Walt becomes a mentor to Thao, much like Wayne did for Ron Howard’s character.
The Shootist is so much better than Gran Torino it hurts. The latter film is poorly written, poorly acted, and entirely too obvious in the points it wants to make. The opening passages lay on the Make Way for Tomorrow stuff extra thick, establishing sympathy for Walt by making his sons and grandchildren terrible people. Literally every moment they appear on screen, they’re doing something greedy, disrespectful, or rude. They’re stick figures. Walt himself, as played by Eastwood, isn’t much better. The actor was clearly aware how euphonious his septuagenarian growl sounds, and he spends the film running it into the ground. The script, by Nick Schenk, is careful to alternate scenes of Walt being a racist codger with moments that either endear the audience to him (because he won’t let younger people push him around) or justify his intolerance (because the neighborhood is filled with odious minority gang members). When the film settles into its main plot, with Walt befriending Thao and his sister Sue, things start to click, but the story is never particularly believable. Walt doesn’t create the opportunity to give himself a Shootist moment; the script shoehorns him into that situation.
Throughout the film, it’s implied that Walt may be dying. From time to time, he stoically coughs up blood, but no terminal illness is named. So his decision to confront the gang that threatens Thao’s family isn’t explicitly a decision to die on his own terms rather than the terms of a disease. But it plays that way. The most interesting visual moment comes when Walt is in full Shootist “putting my ducks in a row before The End” mode. After going to confession and surprising the young priest by only listing a few peccadilloes, Walt makes another “confession” to Thao, admitting that he once killed a Korean soldier who was trying to surrender. Between them is a screen door — locked to prevent Thao from going with Walt to face the gang — which clearly resembles the screen of the confessional booth. Eastwood’s mostly antagonistic stance toward organized religion is complicated by his character’s eleventh-hour move toward repentance, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.
I enjoyed Ahney Her in the role of Sue when I first saw the film, and I still think she gives the closest thing to a good performance in a film sorely lacking in three-dimensional characters. Gran Torino is a funny movie, but a lot of the humor isn’t quite intentional: Walt glowering over his birthday cake or telling a bunch of kids (in these exact words) to “Get off my lawn!” The political incorrectness isn’t as charming as I once thought; it’s illustrative, not organic. John Carroll Lynch lifts the film somewhat in his scenes as Walt’s barber, trading insults with aplomb. And Eastwood’s work as director is characteristically solid. The film always looks good. Still and all, this film isn’t at the same level as Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby or Letters from Iwo Jima, to which I also gave 3 ½ stars. I will have to demote Gran Torino to 2 ½. A noble failure, perhaps, and sometimes enjoyable to watch, but a failure nonetheless.