The straight-lipped scowl of Walt Kowalski would truly be a menacing sight if it weren't so damn funny. Those expressive eyes and low-key rasps are what make Eastwood's more iconic characters (including Kowalski) what they are-his presence in the cinematic dimension instills a sense of trepidation in others. Stepping out of this persona, Eastwood is a generally beloved Hollywood figure. Celebrated for his down to Earth demeanor and the tonal versatility of his films, it seems the real Eastwood is the bizarro version of the characters he plays. Gran Torino seeks to commemorate this duality, which is essentially why the film works as well as it does. Rumors were abuzz before its release that this would be Eastwood's last foray into acting, which remains a possibility to this day. In this, the public came out in surprising numbers to witness what could be his thespian swan song. Upon going wide, Torino managed to outperform Bride Wars and went on to claim an impressive $148 million domestic sum at as many as 3,045 locations.
Whether or not Eastwood acts again is actually irrelevant to the picture's quality, as it's the aforementioned gunslinger persona that's being given the sendoff here. His Kowalski is a man of few words and only speaks when unavoidably engaged, as is the case at his wife's funeral. To Walt, her passing acts as a landmark event of a fading generation. An introverted man, he soon extends his gaze out from his own world (his family and home) to a neighborhood that is stricken by change. The social climate of his Michigan suburb has shifted dramatically and is now overrun by gangs and random acts of violence.
Being the product of a time lost, Walt refuses to concede the irrelevance of himself or his traditions (which include sitting on his porch drinking Pabst) despite his surrounding community becoming increasingly of Asian descent. He begrudgingly goes about his business until teenaged neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal the titular car-Walt's prized possession. In this, his hand is forced. The confrontation between the two leads to an eventual apology, which leads to an eventual friendship. Walt sees promise in Thao, who in turn sees a hidden genuineness in Walt. Of course, Eastwood being at the helm means there's conflict abound, which comes in the form of gang-related crime.
B-movie sensibilities litter Torino's narrative, which makes the picture more entertaining but adds little in terms of filmic quality. Much ado has been made over Eastwood's gruff racial slurs, which are intended to be comedic in the same vein as exploitation flicks. This notion harks back to the film's sentiment for Eastwood's on-and-off-screen personalities, as it purposefully makes the audience aware that they are watching a movie. The film's other characters are transfixed by Walt's forthrightness because they exist in the cinematic world alongside him. We, as a knowing audience, are supposed to laugh at these self-aware slurs, as they are more telling of Kowalski than those he insults.
Though my overall opinion of the film is a positive one, this isn't to say the picture is not without it's share of problems. Eastwood's understated aesthetic still does little in furthering the film's themes and feels wholly arbitrary. Never lauded for his artisan touch, Eastwood has again delivered something closer to a statement than something artistic. The movie is competent in terms of craft, but his one-take directorial style proves too much for the non-actors of his supporting cast, who flounder throughout. Of course, this could be used to evoke a B-movie feel, though no evidence of such a notion exists in the film. The picture succeeds in its ideas and approach but seems lacking in concern. Nonetheless, Torino is a fitting eulogy to the lonely gunman of yesteryear and the films that made him famous.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her and Brian Haley
Screenplay: Nick Schenk
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Bill Gerber and Robert Lorenz
Rating: R for language throughout and some violence.
Running time: 116 min.