The old man and the car

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The old man and the car

Meet Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski: Korean War vet, retired auto worker, widower, ornery racist coot.

Walt can’t stand the people crowding into his home for his wife’s wake, and they’re relatives and friends; don’t even get him started on the Hmong family moving in next door. But he’s played by Clint Eastwood, in an Eastwood-directed movie, so no matter what kind of bastard Walt is, you know you’re probably going to like him.

With his wife gone, all Walt really wants to do is swig PBRs on his porch and mutter spiteful pronouncements to his yellow Lab, Daisy, who absorbs them without judgment. Walt has kids, who’ve grown puffy and complacent, and grandkids, who seem like an old man’s nightmare of bratty entitlement. He also has a hovering young priest (Christopher Carley), who promised Walt’s wife he’d get Walt into confession.

The good, the bad and the director: Clint Eastwood stays lean and mean behind and in front of the camera in Gran Torino.

And then there are the neighbors. When one, a sensitive kid named Thao (Bee Vang), shows up at Walt’s door, he barks, “Have some respect, zipperhead. We’re in mourning here.” The irony’s lost on Walt, of course, but not on Eastwood, who became famous partly by knowing how to play seething intolerance for laughs, and who seems—at least at first—to intend his reportedly final film performance to be satirically comedic. Not a bad idea.

Walt’s worldview has calcified into a pose, the maintenance of which is easier for him than experiencing actual feelings. He also maintains two objects of sentimental value: the M-1 rifle that he carried in combat and a 1972 Ford Gran Torino that signifies his former employer’s glory days. And when Thao tries to steal the latter as a gang initiation, he finds himself staring down the barrel of the former, right into Walt’s beady glare.

Assuming your willingness to indulge it, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As it happens, Walt’s gun-toting machismo becomes a form of protection for Thao against the gang. So, as a gesture of goodwill, Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) insists that Thao shall be at Walt’s service.

Walt responds like Dirty Harry having a new partner assigned: reluctantly putting Thao to work on a few odd jobs and inevitably deciding to try and man him up. This involves loaning Thao tools, exposing him to the crass rapport between Walt and his barber (John Carroll Lynch), and brusquely advising him on the matter of talking to girls. Meanwhile, Sue gets wise to Walt’s posturing and gets him over to her house, where he realizes, in the movie’s most tonally exact line, that “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own spoiled rotten family…Jesus Christ!” A hateful geezer, yes, but a hateful geezer of, um, honor?

Never mind that Archie Bunker had this routine down when Gran Torinos still were fresh on Ford’s assembly line. You will show respect to His Clintness. It’s just too bad Gran Torino squanders some of the penance it pays for Eastwood’s previous directorial effort, the clunky Changeling, by deciding that satirically comedic is unsustainable; it goes and gets all heavy and redemptive instead.

Eastwood’s no-nonsense aura includes rumors that he resists messing with writers’ scripts. In rookie screenwriter Nick Schenck’s case, that’s a mixed blessing. But really, so what if the material and the performances are uneven? To be the perfectly career-summarizing Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino needn’t be perfect—just agreeably rough.

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