Gran Torino (2008; dir. Clint Eastwood) is the name of a machismo automobile popular during the 60s and 70s. Large, obnoxious, and gas guzzling, it is the prized possession of Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) in the movie named for the car. Gran Torino is a moving character study, even if in some ways it doesn’t quite make sense. We meet Kowalski in the film’s opening scene. His wife has just died, and at the funeral he barely manages to summon enough interest to greet well wishers and mourners. Clearly upset at his wife’s death, but congenitally antisocial, he can’t accept the sympathies others try to offer. Kowalski is a manly man. He is passive and stolid and shows little emotion, other than disgust and disdain for the modern world that has moved on without him. He is a senior citizen version of the main character in the Dirty Harry films of the 70s and 1980s. He is particularly upset over the changes taking place in his neighborhood. No longer solidly white and middle class, it has from his perspective deteriorated over the years, and different ethnic groups are moving in. A family of Hmong Asians move in next door to his house. He sneers at them in disgust as he pushes his mower back and forth across his small and well manicured lawn. His objections to their presence, the challenges they encounter, form the dramatic core of the film.
In many ways this is a typical Clint Eastwood vehicle, wherein injustices and crimes lead to an act of cathartic and climactic retribution. The way the central character rises to that moment of retribution, the way in which it differs from what one would normally expect, is the way in which the film measures the man. Gran Torino operates in the same territory as The Unforgiven (1992), the Eastwood film that overturns all previous Eastwood films while at the same time delivering the violence and mayhem that satisfy audience expectations. As satisfying as The Unforgiven was, as good a film as it is, it suffers from moral incoherence as a result—the man who has renounced violence returns to violence in order to punish those who use violence against him and his friends. Once vengeance is his, he returns to his complacent, domestic life as a dry goods store owner. The Unforgiven is Eastwood’s pronouncement on the flaws of violent retribution and his defense of its occasional necessity.
Gran Torino offers a more morally coherent pronouncement on violence, on the Eastwood persona in general. It is warm and compassionate, despite its conclusion. It has many moments of humor. It dramatizes an old bigot’s gradual transformation to appreciation of and friendship with people of another culture. One might find fault for the ease and speed with which the transformation occurs—food has a lot to do with it, as does the winsome attractiveness of the young woman who befriends Kowalski, as does the bumbling and ambitious naiveté of the young man whom he takes under his wing.
In the end, Walt Kowalski’s final gesture allows a full measure of vengeance that is totally satisfying yet wholly within the confines of law and civilized order. It is also one of the few moments in cinema when an actor/director manages to extinguish in a convincingly permanent way the persona that has been the hallmark of his career in film.