Gran Torino

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Most films are like this: you either like it or you don’t. No surprise there, right? But, occasionally, there’s that movie where your reaction is either you love it or you hate it. Judging from various reviews, blogs and conversations, Gran Torino is a movie that has split audiences. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but those who hated the movie are dead wrong.

Gran Torino is about a hard drinking, recently widowed Korean War veteran with a chip on his shoulder about the size of North Dakota. A grizzled, grumbling old bigot named Walt Kowalski. He’s played by Clint Eastwood, that living legend, and it’s one of his great performances. This film is the story of how Kowalski takes baby steps to becoming a better man.

Kowalksi is the last white resident in a neighborhood in Detroit that is mostly Hmong immigrants, and the film concentrates on his relationship with the family next door, most notably with the wise beyond her years daughter Sue (Aheny Her) and her troubled teenage brother Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is a shy, introverted young man who is being courted to join a gang by his cousin.

The threat of the gang, and Kowalksi’s reaction to them, will of course draw comparison to another Eastwood character. An interpretation of Gran Torino as Old Man Dirty Harry misses the point entirely. This film is not a revenge film, it’s about Walt breaking through his unjustified hatred of just about everybody around him. It’s about acceptance.

A crucial character to the film is the baby-faced priest Father Janovich (played by Christopher Carley). Father Janovich wants very much for Walt to go to confession (Walt’s wife’s dying request), and Walt, of course, refuses. Father Janovich and Walt both see the dangers and struggles the neighborhood is facing, but both have different thoughts on how to combat them.

As I read the various ‘haters’ and their stance, many were bothered that a film had a sympathetic racist character. The point, I think, is that Walt uses the racist jargon, the slang, as a defense mechanism, a shield. It’s his way to distance himself from other people. Eastwood has created a powerful film about a bitter, racist old coot who learns to lighten up, and stand up for something. Gran Torino moved me like few films have this year. I loved it.

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