Pros: Clint Eastwood deserves two Oscars for this one, probably more.
Cons: Not for the easily insulted or squemish.
Gran Torino (2009) Directed by Clint Eastwood.
"Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? That's me." Walt Kowalski
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a man made hard and bitter by his life. A veteran of the Korean War, he just lost his wife, Dorothy, the light of his life. He does not understand, or approve of his kids. He worked his whole life in the Ford factory; his oldest Mitch, (Brian Haley) sells Mitsubishis. Nor does he like the fact his grand children showed up at their grandmother's funeral in a sports jersey, or worse, with a bare midriff and a belly ring.
Walt is cranky, cantankerous, and does not mind sharing his opinion on any given subject. He just wants to be left alone to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer on his porch, and contemplate how the world has gone to heck.
His next door neighbors are Hmong, an ethnic group from southeast Asia. Thao,(Bee Vang) the son, is the subject of interest by his cousin, Spider (Doua Moua), leader of a group of gang*bangers. They try to lure Thao in, but he resists passively. Finally, they wear him down, and he goes with them.
His initiation task is to steal Walt's prize possession, a 1972 Gran Torino, in cherry condition. Needless to say, Walt catches him, and scares him away.
That is enough for Thao. He did not want to be in a gang anyway. But when Spider and his gang show up to collect him anyway, over his and his family's objections, the fight spills over onto the neighbor's lawn. Walt's lawn. Walt's perfectly manicured lawn. And they broke one of Dorothy's gnomes.
The next thing the gang*bangers know, they are looking down the barrel of a rifle and being told by a very ticked off Walt, "Get. Off. My. Lawn!"
He is of course every bit as gracious to the family as you would expect. "Get off my lawn."
But the next day he finds his front stoop littered with food, covered dishes, and flowers. As the sister next door explains, he is a hero.
Walt does not want to be a hero. Nor does he want to deal with the parish priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who promised his wife he would look out for Walt, and get him to go to confession. However, the priest keeps coming back, and so do the gifts.
The sister, Sue (Ahney Her) is out walking with her white date when a trio of black thugs begin hassling them. The boyfriend is useless, but Sue is bold, and feisty, and does not back down, belittling them for acting like punks. Walt watches all this from his truck, and as he sees the situation take a darker turn, he drives over, and intervenes.
Sue, grateful, but hardly fawning, comes by the next day. Thao must repay his debt. Walt does not want him, but is told it is a great insult not to let him make amends. Walt has him count birds in a tree. But the next day, a better idea occurs. He has Thao clean the neighbor's across the streets gutters, reattach them, rehang the shutters, and clear out the over growth. The owner, an older Hmong gent is very grateful. Soon Thao is repainting his house, and when a grandfather brings his six year old granddaughter to ask Walt if Thao can clean out the wasp nest under his porch, Walt is happy to help. Thao will get to that after lunch.
Sue then invites Walt to her house for a party (there is a new baby in the extended family) and her timing is flawless; he just ran out of beer. Sue has invited the white devil into the house, and Walt pulls a few faux pass, (you never touch a Hmong on the head, even a child) but Sue explains things, and things settle, and the aunties find a willing taster for their culinary efforts. Sue also drags him to the basement where the kids hang, and where he notices Thao silently watching Yua (Choa Kue) a very cute girl, being pursued by three suitors. He reads Thao (or Toad as he calls him) down the road for not having enough testicular fortitude to go after the girl.
He takes Thao under his wing. He takes him to the barbershop to learn how to swear and talk white guy. Then he gets him a job working construction. (and those communication skills come in darn handy!)
Walt realizes among the traditional Hmong with their family values and work ethic, he feels more at home than with his own children. He learns to like his neighbors, and even to accept their gifts (no, no you don't have to keep doing...are those those dumpling things? You better come inside...sure beats beef jerky!)
But Spider and his gang have not given up on Thao, and when they put out a cigarette on his cheek, Walt takes one of them to task to teach him the error of his ways.
But that is part of the point of a gang; they don't learn from a beating. They just escalate. And Walt realizes that Sue and Thao and indeed the rest of the neighborhood will never be safe until they are dealt with. Permanently.
This is a great movie. Let's look at the down side first. Walt is a crusty old bigot who calls his neighbors gooks, slopes, and swamp rats. He calls black gang-bangers spooks. He calls his barber a wop dago pr*ck, and asks if he is Jewish because he keeps raising the prices. He calls Thao Toad, and Yua Yumyum (which fits). And when the women folk tear into the men for a transgression, his observation is, "Jesus, Joseph and Mary. These Hmong broads are like badgers."
Walt is one of those men who is not afraid to call a spade a spade, or a black man either. However, Walt insult pretty much everyone equally.
Second, there is some graphic violence. However, none of it is gratuitious. It all has its place in the plot.
On the upside, Walt is a great observer of the human condition, and pulls no punches. When Father Janovich asks him why he won't confess to him, Walt says, "Because I am not talking to a 27 year old virgin straight out of priest school."
It is wonderful watching Sue and Thao batter down his defenses with polite patience, and an occasional kick in the pants. It is wonderful comparing Walt and Grandmother, who are cut from exactly the same bolt of cloth (they hate each other). Yet this is not a family time movie of the week. This is not Grumpy Old Men, the Hmong edition. It is real, and gritty, and speaks to the plight of older transitional neighborhoods, and the violence that permeates them. It is a movie about redemption, and second chances, and figuring out what you believe in.
This movie has already been nominated for the Golden Globe, and frankly I think it should win the Oscar. Best Actor, Best Director. I don't know if it is going into the mix for 2008 or 2009 but when ever it does, it will be a strong contender. A good actor knows his strengths, and plays to them. A great actor plays to his strengths, and then stretches to go beyond them. This performance is great. This movie is great. Do not miss it.