Gran Torino is a film about racism, mentorship and overcoming the demons of our past. Clint Eastwood acts as much with his face as with his other faculties in Gran Torino and its great to witness. He brings up to the surface a similar aggression factor present in one of his most signature characters, San Francisco Police Department Inspector Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry. Eastwoods’ character in Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski, is a Korean War veteran whose wife has just died. It is at her funeral that his personality is established. He is a hard man to please, his sons Mitch Kowalski (Brian Haley) and Steve Kolwalski (Brian Howe) can attest to that. Walter believes in America and buying American. He fought for American, still has his M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle from the war. He also worked on a Ford car factory production line for over thirty years and helped build his most prized possession, a 1972 Ford Gran Torino with a Cobra Jet Engine.
Walter’s neighborhood is lowly becoming predominantly Hmong (a people inhabiting the mountainous regions of southern China and adjacent areas of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand), something he loathes because of his experiences during the Korean War. Walter does not care that the Hmong helped the United States during Vietnam by fighting to block use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (amongst other operations) by the Viet Cong. Walter only cares who they look like and who they resemble. He can not stand that some of the Hmong have begun populating his stomping ground and some of them feel the same way about him. During the course of Gran Torino, the viewer will most likely hear the longest diatribes about Hmongs they have ever heard. The viewer may not know what half the litany of racial slurs refer to or were derived from and may not want to. Watching Walter spew them adds to Walter’s character and the entertainment value of Gran Torino.
The tone of Gran Torino is augmented when Walter comes to the aid of one of his neighbors, Thao Van Lor (Bee Vang). This incident brings Walter into the good graces of the Van Lors and his other Hmong neighbors. Walter goes from an outsider to a guardian angel in the blink of an eye. It is through the relationship that ensues between Walter and Thao (who refers to as Toad) that Kolwalski experiences the first real moments of personality growth and alteration that he has probably undergone in quite a long time. He changes to such a degree that by the third act of Gran Torino, he is mentoring Thao and grows to respect him and his out spoken sister Sue (Abney Her). Walter ends up being kinder and more understanding of Thao than he is of his own sons.
When the actions of the gang harassing the Van Lors, which Walter thwarted previously, degenerate to abhorrent acts of violence against the family, it is Walter that “responds” both in expected and unexpected ways. There is a moment in Gran Torino where the rest of film, what’s going to happen, especially the climax, is given to the audience in one “fortuitous” scene and is disregard by the unwatchful. This moment explains the climax in a way, or the anti-climax as some might see it, of Gran Torino so it is not seen as such a surprise.
Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a slow film but in a good way. The viewer is given time to get to know the characters, the mentorship to mature and for Walter’s bond to the Van Lor’s to strengthen. Gran Torino could have gone a completely different way, including its ending, but decided to take the road less traveled.