At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Gran Torino “08”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Doua Moua, Sonny Vue, Elvis Thao, Brian Haley, Brian Howe, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Michael E. Kurowski, John Carroll Lynch, Chee Thao, Choua Kue, Scott Eastwood/ Runtime: 116 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that if you make a list of the top directors in the film business today and the names Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, Christopher Nolan, and Clint Eastwood aren’t on it then we might have to have a talk. However, out of all the names I just listed, I think it is safe to say that only Clint has managed to achieve the same incredible yet equal degree of success whilst working on both sides of the camera. Indeed perhaps one of the more well-rounded individuals in the history of filmmaking, Eastwood is a name that you will usually hear being discussed come awards season for a film he either helmed, acted in, or both. Just to put this into perspective for you dear reader, this is a man who, in regards to the Oscars, was nominated a pair of times for Best Director and Best Actor on 2 films he made, nominated for Best Director 2 more times for films he didn’t appear in, and all 4 of those films also were nominated for Best Picture and he managed to walk away with at least a pair of Oscars for his efforts. whew. Yet equally as impressive as his success, is the long-standing partnership that Clint has with Warner Bros since they seem to be his go-to studio 9 times out of 10 for distributing his films be they the Dirty Harry films, The Gauntlet, Blood Work, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Absolute Power, and the list goes on and on. This of course brings us to a partnership they did in 2008 that took the form of a film called Gran Torino which once again saw Clint both in front and behind the camera, and which didn’t receive any Oscar nods. Yet do not let that fool you about how wonderful this film is movie goers. Indeed it might not be some big MCU superhero film or popcorn action flick a’la Hobbs and Shaw, but Gran Torino is still a riveting and emotionally driven drama about a special kind of power: the power that enables us as people both to change as human beings and to change the world around us by being a better person period.

The plot is as follows: Gran Torino tells the tale of a man by the name of Walt Kowalski. Kowalski, among other attributes worth mentioning is a grumpy curmudgeon, a veteran of the Korean War, an extremely racist though more due to his generation and experiences than anything, and a man who absolutely loathes the concept of change, and the time passing him by. He is also a man who, when the movie opens, has just lost his wife to the afterlife. A fact that is important to note because, despite his immense dislike for the “new ways of the world”; a set of ways that happen to include the way his own kids and grandkids choose to live their various lives, we see that Walt instead lives his life by a distinct collection of values of which dignity and honor are at the top of the list. It is also this set of values that has resulted in the quite bullheaded Walt to vehemently refuse to move from his home in Detroit despite his neighborhood fading around him, vicious gangs prowling around, and non-white families choosing to take up residence in the crumbling homes that line his once tranquil and well-kept street. Yet amidst all of the hustle and bustle and change going on all around him, there is at least one constant that Walt holds near and dear. This of course would be a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino that he personally helped construct during 5 decade tenure working on the assembly line at the Ford plant. Thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that when Walt’s young and befuddled next-door neighbor, a boy by the name of Thao Vang Lor, attempts to make off with this very same car as part of a gang initiation, Walt doesn’t really take too kindly to it; in fact he fills the boy with utter terror by scaring the beejesus out of him with his old M1 Garand rifle. Later however when Thao’s resisting of the gang leads to a brawl on Walt’s lawn, the old grump once again turns to the rifle only this time not only is it ward off the vicious gang bangers, but also unwittingly earns Walt the respect and gratitude not only of Thao’s family, but also the whole block as well. Thus we soon learn that as a form of penance for attempting to make off the car, Thao is bound by cultural tradition to do work for Kowalski who, despite showing extreme reluctance, soon accepts, but little by little actually begins to genuinely appreciate what the boy has to offer the world including a driven work ethic as well as an affable demeanor whilst also coming to accept the rest of Thao’s family as dear friends. Thus we soon see that Kowalski slowly, but surely begins the process of conquering his inner prejudices whilst doing everything in his power to ensure that Thao stays out of trouble; a struggle that soon promises to change both of their lives forever…

Now I feel it should be said that sometimes a movie doesn’t need all the items on the typical checklist that when put together wonderfully will produce a film that many people will view as a “triumph”, a “success”, or even an “icon slice” of filmmaking at its very best. Rather there are times where a film needs just a singular ingredient to pull that off, and in the case of this film that would its potent, moving, powerful, and quite pathos-driven core. Indeed that is because if you look at this film from a more typical perspective, it really does appear to fall behind films that it is similar to due to mostly unpolished performances from the supporting cast, a pace that seems to really not move on the level it should, and the lack of a musical accompaniment. Yet despite all that this film is able to triumph over those issues because it is not about those things. Instead this is a film which is about pathos, life, and just the human condition in general and the immense strength it has to overcome almost anything be it in combat far from home, in a run-down neighborhood, or most crucial of all, in the soul of a man himself. To that end, Gran Torino serves as a movie about a distinct type of quest that is a reflection on a slice of humanity where we witness not only an evolving world and a crusty/cynical soul go head-to-head, but where we see the powers of welcoming, belief, relinquishing, and love are all able to defeat a man’s inner selfish ways and teach him, however begrudgingly, the timeless gift of being selfless to those around him.

Indeed it is the gift this film has of being able to conquer these complicated issues with as much simplicity as possible to say nothing of how it approaches everything in a way that is both dead-on and to the point that proves to be this film’s greatest strength. Indeed as the film shows us, the character of Walt is a man who despite being generally annoyed about his surroundings yet satisfied with his own lot in life, is one who lets the world pass by with only a scowl to greet it with. Indeed his desire is not to alter things in any way, but to just be left alone in the comfort and security of his house. Yet when the ills that the world conjures up begin to disrupt his way of life, he takes prompt and swift action that manages to evolve into something more and in Walt discovering that not everything is as black and white as he has thought it to be his whole life up till that point. Indeed even though this is a lesson that has seemingly been around as long as humanity as, I feel that rarely has it been showcased as meaningfully as it in this film. However, that being said this is a film which primarily deals in the concept of selfless sacrifice. That is because even though at first Walt engages with the vicious gang not for the people in the neighborhood, but for himself, what he does is still seen as heroic by the very people he doesn’t comprehend nor care to. Thus we see that his eventual acceptance in their traditional manner of over-the-top generosity is not because he is eager to take from them, but rather in their equally strong desire to give back to him. Thus, as the film goes on, we slowly but surely start to see a reversal of this as Walt finds himself becoming a tutor of sorts to a young man who is in need of it more than anything else even if the man teaching him the ways of the world also happens to be a guy who loathes the young man’s very existence on this planet because of no more and no less than his race. Yet in the character of Thao, Walt is able to see a lot of himself in this young man. Thus by working with this boy, whom he comes to love and appreciate as both a surrogate grandson and a friend, Walt is able to see past the prejudices that have been ingrained him virtually his whole life and instead begin seeing that who a person is on the outside is not a determinant for who he is on the inside.

All in all in addition to being potent, quite emotional, and seemingly timeless, I guess it’s also worth noting that Gran Torino is a true representative for the power of straightforward filmmaking; an art where the concepts and the emotional context of the film manage to completely overwhelm every other angle possible of the viewing experience for the better. Indeed in a film like this, the key to success is not to be found in the fact that Eastwood, yet again, manages to give us another powerhouse performance both in front and behind the camera, or the fact that the work in the cinematography department is truly exceptional. By the same token it is also not as potent of a detractor to note that this film has several performances that might leave just a wee bit to be desired. Instead the key to this film is that, positives and negatives aside, it is the emotional heart and soul of this film that manages to function on a truly potent level in how it manages to deliver a simplistic yet powerful look at how sacrifice and selflessness in a world that is tragically full of selfishness can really change a man’s life as well as the lives of those around him that is what manages to far outweigh all the other ingredients in this film. Suffice it to say then that Gran Torino, much like its lead actor/helmer is a truly riveting example of just how powerful, emotional, and gripping the old-school way of telling a story can be, but especially when placed in the hands of a master. On a scale of 1-5 I give Gran Torino “08” a solid 4 out of 5.