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Gran Torino

So I have been away from the movie theatre for a while. I saw The Wrestler and I must say that it's great to see mickey Rourke at full throttle and performing his ass off in that movie. And what more can be said about the lovely Marissa Tomei that hasn't already been said? Though she's supposed to be a washed-up stripper, I think she's still got it. The two of them shine side by side, playing what are basically the same characters with small differences and nuances that split their paths and cause an almost tragic fork in their roads.
Last night, though, I saw Gran Torino, and I thought that it was the kind of movie that I could walk away from and explain to people in a few sentences. I quickly found that it is not that type of movie. It is a film with a simple plot: a hardened war veteran widower comes face to face with people who look to him like the very people he was fighting against in Korea.
Let's stop right there and look at the film's other implicit asset, namely the mythology of Clint Eastwood. Not the star status, but the archetype that he became known for in films like Dirty Harry and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It is a character with what like to call the three G's: Glare, Grit, and Guns. The first shot of Walter Kowalski (Eastwood) in Gran Torino is at his wife's funeral. several people have come to pay their respects, including Kowalski's two sons, and his grandchildren. through simple cuts between his glaring face and his granddaughter's piercings and inappropriate funeral attire by any standards, his glare intensifies. Thus we see Walter -excuse me, Mr. Kowalski, as a man borne out of the past, with both feet still firmly planted there. Instead of lashing out directly and confronting the dreaded change that he sees going on around him- change in the youth, change in the neighborhoods and demographics- he shoots his glare like poison darts at the offending party- darts that have the effect of infecting those who come into his presence with a similar attitude- at least towards him. His own sons display a methodical, rehearsed interaction, wary of his short temper and cutting insults.
It is soon clear that, although it may be exacerbated by it, his wife's death is not the cause of his curmudgeonly disposition. His complaints are muttered only to himself, and some of the film's most revealing moments about his character come from these ramblings.
Many of the details of his life are never revealed- and they don't have to be. His past does not need to be fully understood for the sake of the story, save for a few facts: He fought in Korea and came home with blood on his hands, and he worked at a Ford factory for much of his life. We assume that he retired with a pension, and it's pretty clear that he's lived in the same house for decades. His prized posession is his Ford Gran Torino that sits in his garage, a car that he takes great pride in. "I put the steering column into that car right on the assembly line", he proudly recalls. In his neighborhood, however, where he is seen as a stubborn old reminder of the past, local gangsters see the car as his weak spot.
The real story begins when Kowalski's neighbor, a Hmung boy living next door, is persuaded by the gangsters to steal the car in a gang initiation. Thao is a quiet, introverted boy who, when it comes to grand theft, is obviously green. He botches the job, and is caught by Kowalski, who gomes out toting a military-issue rifle, the very same one he weilded in Korea. For a moment I was sure that Thao was a gonner, and he may have been, had it not been for a carelessly placed tool in the garage, which allows Thao a moment to escape.
But of course he gets away. From this point, Gran Torino is a brilliantly-paced story of two most unlikely friends. Walter unwittingly becomes the hero of the neighborhood after an unfortunate disturbance, and he is showered with gifts by the Hmung residents on the block, in a traditional showing of gratitude. The ice is first chipped away by Thao's sister Sue, who sees that Kowalski is so polarized in the direction of grumpy old fart, that there is only direction his attitude can progress. She is sarcastic in a way that Walt's own kin never dared to be, and speaks to him convinced that his outlook on life is just a phase.
The line that marked the film's major turning point is another muttering that Walt makes to himself after meeting Thao and Sue's family: "I have more in common with these (insert racist asian slur here) than I do with my own family".
Walt is on a path with such great momentum that you know he will never be the person we met in the first few scenes. Eastwood's portrayal of the old man is chilling- and though the classic Eastwood game face never changes, it is still able to convey a total character shift through the movie.
The casting is superb- a risky choice of unknown actors that adds to the film's realism. Eastwood's own son Scott plays a small role, and the acting is neither flashy nor overdone. The cinematography's submission to the story tells us only what needs to be known, and nothing more- and that is plenty.
The film definitely satisfies the moviegoer who wants to leave the theater with something to talk about- whether it's the demographic shift, the 'good old days', or the person who we know who most resembles Kowalski, it will leave you talking. And not in that open-ended, 'what do you think happened?' kind of way, but in a self-reflective way.

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