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'Gran Torino': Clint Eastwood in Winter
December 24, 2008
Clint Eastwood stars in and directs this amazing film. Fresh and original, hilarious and heart-rending, this film will seize a hold of your heart and not let go. And if you enjoy snappy dialog, consider "Gran Torino" this year's "Juno."
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a veteran of the Korean War who has not adjusted to the changing times. He's a racist, sour bigot, whom his own family avoids. His recently departed wife's wish was for Kowalski to confess to their priest, something Kowalski is loath to do, considering the priest's young age.
How can he confess to someone who knows less about life than he does?
Kowalski tries to live a solitary existence, but events draw him into the lives of his Hmong neighbors, who dislike him as much as he dislikes them.
But when his next-door neighbor's kid Thao (played by Bee Vang) tries to steal his car, a vintage Gran Torino, under threats from a gang, and Kowalski inadvertently saves his life, the Hmong community starts honoring Kowalski.
At first, Kowalski is annoyed by all the attention and just wants to be left alone. But when Thao comes over to make amends, offering to do any chores that need doing, Kowalski's dry old heart starts to crack open.
Thao's older sister Sue (played by Ahney Her) plays a big role in the thawing of Kowalski's feelings as well. Bright, forceful, and unflappingly cheery, Kowalski can't help but enjoy her visits, no matter how he tries to resist.
Kowalski begins teaching Thao how to fix much more than mechanical things. He starts fathering him in the way he never did with his own children. He helps him get his first job, and lends him the necessary equipment.
One of the most hilarious scenes in the film — and truly, there are many laugh-out-loud moments — is when Kowalski tries to teach Thao to "talk like a man."
He takes him to his barber shop, where Kowalski engages in a trading of racist insults, per his usual routine. But when Thao mimics the dialog, Kowalski thinks the kid is being horribly rude! Kowalski doesn't recognize himself when his own words are parroted.
Despite the amazing humor, the film is not, ultimately, a comedy. Thao's refusal to join the gang puts his family in jeopardy, and Kowalski tries desperately to keep Thao and his family from falling prey to the gang, even as Kowalski wrestles with his own demons as he nears the end of his life.
Eastwood gives a remarkable performance. It's nearly over the top, at times, but it works. The rest of the cast gives powerful performances. As with so many great films, one of the stars of this film is the script itself.
One of the fascinating parts of the film is the introduction to the Hmong culture. First-time writer Nick Schenk penned the script based on a story he and Dave Johannson conceived. Schenk drew upon his Hmong co-workers as he worked at a factory in Minnesota for inspiration.
And although the part of Kowalski seems tailor-made for Eastwood, Schenk did not write the script with Eastwood in mind. Perhaps because of that, this film just might bring Eastwood his first Academy Award as an actor.
Don't let this one get away. Give "Gran Torino" a chance to steal its way into your heart.
Lisa Pease is a historian and a movie buff.
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