Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a retired Ford Assembly Worker, living in the Detroit neighborhood he has called home for decades, is one racist man. Archie Bunker would turn red and blush if he were to hear some of the things coming from Walt's mouth. But this is what makes Eastwood's performance so interesting and believable. Because Walt is so unapologetically racist, he gets involved with a number of people and in a number of situations that he would normally have shied away from. But these same situations and people start to give his life new meaning and new purpose. That said, the best thing about "Gran Torino" is that even if Walt becomes more accepting of his neighbors and their customs, he doesn't stop being racist and sort of uses it as a crutch to remain a little detached from them.
Walt's wife has just died and he is not happy to see his grand kids show up at the funeral late, in completely inappropriate attire and playing with their game boys and cell phones. At the wake, back at his house, his grand daughter hints/ asks him who might get his mint condition 1972 Gran Torino when he dies. He scowls at her and walks away. He scowls at his son, a Toyota salesman before the family drives away, relieved to have completed their family duty for the day. After the wake, he sits on his porch with his faithful Lab, drinking Pabst, watching his neighbors, scowling at them. He sees a bunch of Asian faces where there used to be nice, Caucasian American families. Families that kept their houses neat and tidy. He watches a bunch of people entering the house next door and we soon learn that Sue (Ahney Tor) and her younger brother, Thao (Bee Vang) are living with their mother. Sue is smart and doesn't take any crap from Walt, trying to educate him about her family and her people. Soon, Thao is forced into an initiation prank by one of his cousins, who is eager for Thao to join his gang. They want Thao to steal Walt's Gran Torino. Walt puts a kibosh on the effort, scares the young man and forbids Thao from ever stepping on his property again. But Sue and her mom insist that Thao has disgraced them and must work off his shame. Walt puts him to work in a unique way and he grows a little fond of the young man, recognizing that he needs a male influence in his life. But the cousin's gang is becoming more persistent and Walt decides to put a stop to this.
There are so many elements in "Gran Torino" that shouldn't work, that don't have a right to work, but in the hands of Eastwood, one of the most competent and reliable directors working today, these same elements seem to be slight obstacles, leading him to a better film, a more interesting film.
Eastwood is basically the only 'name' in the film and this could be problematic. But in a way, it proves to be a smart choice, very smart. Because Eastwood is surrounding himself with a cast of largely unknown actors, he diminishes himself and makes Walt seem more real. Yes, it's Clint Eastwood playing the role, but he blends into the woodwork more when people who just look more normal surround him.
Walking a little slower, speaking in a low surly voice, we get the picture of Walt very quickly. Walt spent many years on the Ford Assembly line and takes great pride in the work he did and in the work he still does around the house. For this reason, when he scans his neighborhood and sees paint peeling or missing roof shingles, it breaks his heart a little, causing him to feel a little more defeated each day. It's also a huge disappointment that his grandkids aren't more respectful and that his son makes a living, a good living selling Toyotas. So, when the Asian people begin to move in, he stares at them with a sneer, never bothering to say hello or offer his name. They are one of the many problems leading to the downfall of his neighborhood, which contributes to his sadness.
But Walt is also tough and isn't about to let some punk kid steal a car he himself helped to build. He scares the kid off; Thao didn't want to do it anyway, feeling pressured into the prank by his cousin and his buddies. But Walt also recognizes that Thao needs some help, some guidance. He's basically a good kid, so Walt agrees to let him work off his shame. As he does this, doing many tasks around the neighborhood, Walt seems to delight when the neighbors start requesting Walt send Thao to their house. He also recognizes that Thao needs some guidance, to stay away from the gangs, to stay out of jail. So, he takes on the project.
As Walt becomes more familiar with Thao and Sue, their mother and grandmother, his world begins to expand. Thankfully, this is a slow and laborious process. He initially eschews the gifts the neighbors bring him after he helps Thao and Sue, but when Walt gets a taste of the food, he starts to accept it, the Mung ladies of the neighborhood showering him with enough food to make him fat.
But the cousin is also persistent and his gang won't take no from Thao, so they become more violent. Initially, Walt is able to simply beat them up, but they have guns and egos and return. With each return, the level of potential violence increases and Walt soon realizes he has to do something or these two kids won't have a chance.
The two kids who play Sue and Thao are both good and complete unknowns. It was smart of Eastwood to cast these new actors in these roles, making their performances seem more lifelike and interesting. They could be playing themselves for all we know. Perhaps they have experienced similar circumstances in their already young lives. Maybe not, but their performances give no hint to professional training and each seems perfectly natural.
The young gang members are the showiest and therefore the most theatrical. They are right on the verge of becoming caricatures, but Eastwood pulls them back just enough and there is a hint of the insecure kid in each of them which prompts them to join a gang in the first place. This very insecurity is what leads them to try to recruit Thao, they watch as a very similar car of Latino gang members bullies him.
It seems like a lot of the movie is spent watching Walt sit on his porch, drinking beer, watching the neighborhood as he silently stews. This should help contribute to a boring film, but because we are watching Eastwood, our eyes never leave the screen. As he sits and watches, we can almost see the thoughts going through his mind; why did Mrs. Panacek leave the neighborhood and sell her house to the Asians who are no unable to mow the yard. This used to be such a nice neighborhood. I remember playing catch with my two sons on this street, in the middle of the street, waving to the neighbors as they return home. As we watch him, we begin to imagine all of these things and, some of which he hints at later, and it helps his character become very well rounded.
The trailers for the film hint at a showdown between Eastwood's Walt and the gang harassing Thao and Sue. In so many films, the characters lose all credibility when they suddenly become great marksmen and are able to dispatch villains with a single shot. But in "Gran Torino", a lot of the story helps to ground Walt's ability to deal so well with these thugs, and others he comes across, so much so that these inevitable confrontations seem natural. He simply can't stand by while people are harassed and bullied by others, even if he doesn't completely accept the people he is trying to help.
Because Walt is so unapologetically racist, it takes a while before we begin to like him, every time he sees someone of color, he uses a racial epitaph to address them. But as he gets to know Sue and Thao, and their mother and grandmother, he begins to use these same epitaphs more because he is expected to, to get a little giggle from Sue, to cause her to raise and eyebrow and instruct him in all the ways he is a stupid old man. He uses them to get attention.
In fact, so many people in the film are racist, to varying degrees, Walt, who is the worst, begins to seem even more natural because of this character flaw. The Asian gang hates the Latino gang. Some black kids on a corner harass Sue because she is Asian. Walt and his barber, who is Italian, exchange barbed words, trying to shock one another.
In fact, as Walt gets to know Sue and her family, she realizes that Walt's bark is worse than his bite and these racist moments make her giggle and laugh. As he becomes more familiar with them, and likewise, his racism seems to get even worse, because he knows the kids in the family will get a kick out of him mangling their names, or consciously trying to confuse their customs.
And as he gets to know this family more, he becomes a little more accepting of them. He realizes Thao needs a male influence and tries to help him become more of a man, to get a job and start to make a life for himself.
The films emotionally wrenching climax is also well earned. Naturally, you expect some sort of confrontation to close the film, but it happens in an unexpected way with unexpected results.
"Gran Torino" is an excellent film providing us with an emotional story about a fairly unique individual and the people who change his life and how he changes theirs.