Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a grumpy man. And by that, I mean that he’s extremely grumpy. Remember how grumpy Bill Murray was in St. Vincent? He’s got nothing on Walt Kowalski.
Walt served in the Korean War and, five decades later, his experiences still haunt him. After the war, he lived in Detroit and he worked on an assembly line. He’s since retired but he still loves his old Ford Gran Torino, a car that he could very well have helped to build. His wife has recently passed away and his children are eager to move him into a nursing home. Walt is slowly smoking himself to death and the only person who visits him regularly is an earnest young priest (Christopher Carley, playing the ideal priest).
Just as Walt’s life has changed as he’s gotten older, so has his neighborhood. The neighborhood is now dominated by Hmong immigrants. When Walt catches Thao Vang Lor, a 16 year-old Hmong, attempting to steal his car, it leads to an unlikely friendship between Walt, Thao, and Thao’s sister, Sue. When the same local gang that put Thao up to stealing Walt’s car subsequently attacks Sue, Thao wants revenge but Walt says that if Thao kills a man, it’s something that he’ll never recover from. After locking Thao in his house, Walt goes off to confront the gang on his own…
And, since Walt is played by Clint Eastwood, you’d be justified in thinking that Walt’s confrontation would amount to a lot of quips and violence. But actually, it’s the exact opposite. Gran Torino does not find Eastwood in the mood to celebrate violence. Instead, the film is a meditation on both the cost of violence and the impossibility of escaping one’s own mortality.
Whenever people talk about the 2008 Oscar race, the focus always seems to be on the snubbing of The Dark Knight. However, I would say that Gran Torino (among other films) was snubbed even more than The Dark Knight. After all, The Dark Knight may have missed out on best picture but it still received 8 nominations and won an Oscar for Heath Ledger. Gran Torino, on the other hand, received not a single nomination.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Gran Torino deserved a best picture nomination. It’s a fairly predictable film and some of the symbolism, particularly during Walt’s final confrontation with the gang, gets a bit too heavy-handed. (Any time a character spontaneously strikes a crucifixion pose in a movie, you know that things are starting to get out of hand.) But I would argue that Clint Eastwood definitely deserved a nomination for best actor. In many ways, Walt is a typical Eastwood character but, right at the moment when we’re expecting him to behave like every other Eastwood character that we’ve ever seen, Walt surprises us by doing something completely different. As a director, Eastwood subverts our expectations of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a character. As a result, the audience is taken by surprise by Walt, if not by the film’s plot.
I remember, at the time the film was released, there was some speculation that Gran Torino would be the last time we ever saw Clint Eastwood onscreen. That proved to be false, as he subsequently starred in Trouble With The Curve. However, even if it wasn’t his final acting role, Gran Torino still serves as the perfect monument to Eastwood’s unique screen presence.