Gran Torino opens with Walt Kowalski directing a scowl at the camera that would chill the bones of a Mexican Bandito or a San Francisco criminal. “Dad’s still living in the 50s”, says his son, “living by himself in the old neighbourhood, he’s going to get into trouble”. Both of these sentences prove prophetic; Walt is still living in the past, and it does lead to him getting into a hell of a lot of trouble.
The main plot involves misanthropic war veteran Walt accidently forming a friendship with Sue, a Hnung girl next door, and Thao, her shy brother. This gets him into grief with the despicable Spider, the main antagonist and the physical embodiment of people’s fears about immigrants in America. Thao “doesn’t know which direction to go in”; Spider wants him to steal Walt’s Gran Torino, whilst Walt, reluctantly, eventually comes round to helping him earn it.
Easwood’s performance is the big draw of this film; a kind of right-wing, grumpy bear character, he still has his old rifle and medals from Korea, perhaps because he just cannot let go of the past. He gets no respect from his relatives, his wife has died, all his friends have left the neighbourhood, and, at the start of the film, he hates the foreigners who have moved in their place. He’s a jerk, but a sympathetic one because he’s almost the only viewpoint character who isn’t a yuppie or an outright criminal, and because he’s played with such grit and conviction by Eastwood that his ass-kicking is convincing even at the advanced age of 78.
The story of an old man discovering his better nature could have been sentimental glurge, but it rises above its material partly because of its uncompromising look at the worst aspects of modern day crime (the main antagonist’s heinous deeds include machine-gunning a house, burning a boy’s face with a cigarette and raping his own cousin) and partly because of Eastwood’s character’s utter refusal to be sentimental. His racism, though played perhaps a little too sympathetically, sometimes produces moments which are shockingly funny- when his Hnung neighbours invite him to a barbeque; he growls “just keep your hands off my dog”, and considering that he directs just as many jibes at his Italian and Irish friends he is clearly meant to be seen as a misanthrope with outdated views rather than a bigot.
An interesting subplot in the film which took a few viewings to understand is the local priest trying to extract a confession from Walt about his time in Korea and general cranky behaviour towards everyone. Walt, despite his old-fashioned beliefs, is firmly agnostic and having none of it. In the end, however, he will only admit to kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife and selling a boat illegally “I didn’t pay the taxes; it’s the same as stealing!” It’s unclear what this means in the context of the story; does he feel that he doesn’t need to apologise for his earlier behaviour and his actions during the war, or is he still holding out on the priest and the audience?
I prefer the former possibility; it fits in better with Walt’s character. In the end, despite what he’s done, he doesn’t regret it; his lack of a confession shows that he feels he has made up for himself and now has nothing to prove. Taken this way, his final scene seems to be about the fact that, by the end of the film Walt has redeemed himself in the eyes of his neighbours but, and this would certainly be more important to him, also in his own.