Lowdown: An old racist guy opens up to his immigrant neighbors.
I have been known to mention I consider Clint Eastwood to be the best film director around at the moment, having found his work to be so consistently good. The Eastwood story doesn’t end there, because I like him as an actor too, from his Spaghetti Western days to his Dirty Harry era, built in fascism included. Gran Torino is a film that seems to have been made to reinforce these opinions of mine, with Eastwood giving us a mighty demonstration of subtle but effective directing and more than a passing wink at his Western and Dirty Harry acting days.
And he does it while starting off from a position that is really hard to identify with. Eastwood plays a seventy year old Catholic American of Polish heritage living in a rough neighborhood of the USA’s Midwest. His wife had just died but despite the opportunities to do so he seems totally unable to get close to his two sons and their families. Instead, the Korean War traumatized Eastwood character focuses on maintaining his house and polishing his pride and joy, the 1972 Ford Gran Torino muscle car he owns (but throughout the film never drives), a car for which he himself, as a Ford employee, has assembled the steering column. Yet with all that background the one thing you notice and remember about Eastwood’s character is that he is a racist through and through, and an obnoxious one at that.
Thus begins a story of redemption when circumstances bring Eastwood closer to his Hmong (an ethnicity from the Far East) neighbors. He first encounters them when a Hmong gang forces the family’s boy to try and steal his Gran Torino and he almost shoots the boy in the process; but when he saves the family from the gang (for the sole reason the gang stepped on his lawn) he finds himself unable to resist their friendly approaches to him, their good tasting food, and in particular their friendly daughter. The relationship with the family develops, yet as long as that gang is about there is no hope for the family's kids; which is where the Eastwood of old steps in.
Gran Torino is an excellent piece of film from start to finish. Loaded with well developed characters and a wonderful story, I was surprised to find myself identifying with Eastwood's racist character. The relationships in his family, and even the ingrained racism, reminded me of my own family, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether I am as much of a pest to my parents as Eastwood’s sons are. Not to mention my worry as a parent in the face of Eastwood’s spoiled grandchildren.
Symbols are widely and effectively used to enhance the film, starting from the subject car to the various military related analogies. Religion is discussed, too, in an interesting manner: it is being both praised and mocked at the same time, to a state where everyone can see in the film whatever their own religious views lead them. Yet if you ask me, I would say Eastwood praises religion overall as a positive influence in society (in deep contrast to my own views). My take on Gran Torino's religious involves a bit of a small spoiler alert: "They" talk and talk about how Jesus saved us all by dying, yet "they" are completely unable to explain in what way Jesus' death saved us (other than through some blood for blood scheme that would take a real psycho to conceive); well, in Gran Torino Eastwood shows us what a real life saving sacrifice is. Who needs pretend prophets when Clint Eastwood is at hand?
Best scene: The Hmong daughter takes Eastwood inside her house for the first time so he could join a family barbecue. The resulting clash between cultures has everything in it: It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s interesting, and it’s confronting.
Technical assessment: There is some inconsistency with the picture quality, which is often excellent but mostly suffers from undercast colors. The sound, however, is stupidly bad, especially given the Blu-ray format: there is hardly any action outside the center speaker (with the rare exception of some nice music towards the film's ending), and dialog is very badly mixed with so much distortion it’s a pain to listen to. My partner claimed this is not the type of film to look for good sound in, but I argue good sound is the only thing Gran Torino is missing.
Overall: Returning Gran Torino to the video rental shop was quite a hard experience, a rarity for me in latter years; I obviously fell in love with it. 4.5 out of 5 stars from the acknowledged best director around. And do let me conclude by stating I hope Eastwood can come up with plenty more siblings!