“But me I finish things. That’s what I do.”
Of course this line was uttered in the trailer, and is probably the part of the trailer we remember the most. In a lot of ways, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) seems like Dirty Harry in retirement. The classic Dirty Harry, which was frankly no less than a call to arms for fascism and vigilante justice, established an iconic silent, angry at the system cop for Eastwood to embody (indeed, it is a testament to his longevity that he is iconic for multiple characters). When I saw this scene with Eastwood, it started to occur to me that Eastwood does not really have to act anymore. He just embodies his characters with a particular Clint-ness which is unmistakable. Sure he is not a rangy actor … but let’s face it, with his history and the history we have with his Man with No Name or Dirty Harry, isn’t Eastwood sort of trapped in our imaginations as the strong silent iconic sort? As a director of himself, he has used this reality and continues to comment and critique it in his work. No director has known an actor better.
Gran Torino, like much of Eastwood’s directorial canon, is fairly conventional. But like much of his more recent work, it uses a fairly conventional story to say something interesting about human nature. What stays in the mind are his cantankerous comments and the racial epithets. Walt Kowalski, Korean War Vet, Ford line worker – is a very bitter, racist man. As the movie opens you look into his wife’s funeral and the true tension and lovelessness of his life are made very clear, by the distant (to be kind) relationship he has with his children. He lives inside a very eclectic neighborhood where the blacks, latinos, and asians live uneasily together, including the Munh family next door. When one of the kids attempts to steal his beloved car, he finds himself embroiled against his will into their lives.
Rehashing the plot further does not have much utility. Really if one has seen enough movies, the story arc is fairly basic. What is not basic is how sharply seen the next door family is, and how it is not racism that is specifically the problem. What is also not basic is that Eastwood does not let Kowalski suffer some sort of “message picture” revelation. It is done much more subtly and realistically. It goes to the point that racism is a hard thing to perpetrate when the racists live next door. Eastwood avoids easy answers to the predicament, and then while the ending is abrupt and a little ham handed symbolically, it works. It is not a great Eastwood movie, but a perceptive, good spare one.