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Walt Kowalski just wants the gooks off his lawn. He’s in his late 70s, his wife has recently died, and his sons only bother with him when they’re angling for something. But Walt’s not going to a retirement community, and he doesn’t suffer their pity calls. He just wants to hang out with his dog, drink beer, eat jerky, and make sure those zipperhead slopes who’ve taken over the neighborhood stay off his goddamn property.
Wincing? That’s only a sample of the stream of slurs Walt unleashes as easily as saying his name in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s second directorial effort this year that serves as the anti-Crash: Both films may take blunt looks at present-day race relations, but only Gran Torino feels real. In fact, you may find yourself chuckling against your PC judgment at Walt, whom Eastwood plays as the grumpiest of old men with an uncensored, know-it-all zeal that may seem familiar to middle-aged viewers who gave up trying to refine their parents’ vocabulary, if not their outlook, long ago. He’s Mr. Kowalski to his parish’s baby priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), thank you, and never, ever “Wally,” which his young Hmong neighbor, Sue (Ahney Her), takes to calling him. The man literally growls when he sees something he doesn’t like, whether it’s the inappropriate outfits his grandkids wear to his wife’s funeral or the punks who mock, instead of helping, a woman who’s dropped her groceries.
Expletives and stereotyping aside, manners and respectable behavior are of utmost importance to the Korean War vet. So when Walt spies on the extended Hmong family living next door and sees the timid, outnumbered man of the house, Thao (Bee Vang), doing the gardening, dishes, and other chores Walt still regards as woman’s work, he doesn’t think much of the kid. Walt’s opinion of Thao—and, by association, his entire family—really plummets, though, when Walt awakens to a ruckus in his garage and sees the youngster trying to fleece his 1972 Gran Torino. A rifle and suburban Midwest version of “Ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky’?” take care of the situation without the help of cops—to the horror of Father Janovich and the gratitude of Thao’s relatives, who officially regard Walt as a savior when he later fends off the same gang that put Thao up to the attempted grand theft in the first place.
The arc of Nick Schenk’s debut screenplay is superficially Grinchian, as Walt begins to feel fatherly toward Thao and accepts the lavish gifts that his family and the rest of the Hmong community leave on Walt’s steps. But the blooming of a coot’s heart isn’t really the issue here; it was never shriveled to begin with, just formed in a different place and time. Eastwood’s Walt, as thoroughly true as any grizzled septuagenarian who can still be found hanging around in American Legions or places they’d call gin mills, speaks discrimination more than he practices it, recognizing good people for what they are: Watch as he rescues Sue and her wussy white date from a group of black kids who begin harassing them, at once saying he thought she was too smart to walk through a bad neighborhood, warning the kids to knock it off, and telling Sue’s boyfriend to hightail it because he doesn’t blame them for wanting to beat his ass. When Sue persuades him to come over for a barbecue, he quips, “Stay away from my dog,” and responds to her explanation of Hmong customs such as not looking people in the eye with, “You people are nuts.” Yet he happily digs in to the feast her family’s laid out, fixes their wobbly dryer, and makes nice with the other guests. Look past Walt’s grouchy narrow-mindedness, and it’s clear he’s a decent man.
Walt’s training in Korea is offered as a reason but not an excuse for his initially hostile attitude toward his neighbors, and when he decides to make a personal project out of Thao, there are other factors involved besides his hinted-at remorse over his actions in the war. Gran Torino, in this sense, goes deeper than racial clashes and the opening of one bigot’s eyes—it’s about letting go of your past, making the most of your present, accepting that the world now is not the world you grew up in, and adjusting behavior accordingly. And it’s all lurking beneath the entertaining story of an old man and his car, a story that waits for its lessons to be discovered instead of bludgeoning you with manipulations and messages like a certain 2004 Oscar winner.