I watched Gran Torino with friends this weekend. Clint Eastwood poses a double threat as both director and lead character Walt Kowalski, an aging, ailing, recently widowed, racist Korean war vet unhappy about what he sees as a decline in his neighborhood. His closest and most recent thorn is a Hmong family, the Lors, who have moved in next door. Walt, who doesn't like his own children or grandchildren, begins feeling a end-of-his-life-I-want-to-do-something-that-matters fatherly sense of responsibility for the two Lor children, Thao (Bee Vang) and Sue (Ahney Her) after Thao tries to steal Walt's prized, mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino as a gang initiation.
At the outset of what would turn out to be the most wicked case of flu or food poisoning I've ever experienced, I watched the strangely jittery screening with a growing sense of nausea akin to carsickness. Because my four film mates were so moved by the movie, I am willing to put my lack of luster down to illness. And it did have one bright spot. Eastwood’s acting is brilliant. Arms sinewy from years of hard work, chinos worn high, a TV tray of empty PBR cans near his porch perch and an old dog named Daisy at his side, the audience may have found Walt so amusing, his epithetic outbursts humorous because they have or had a Walt in their own families. They were no longer the ones sitting around a dinner table, cringing when their Walt tossed out terms like “zipper head” and “gook” while asking for another serving of mashed potatoes. It was happening to someone else in a make-believe world, that distance allowing them a relieved release from political correctness. Maybe I was just too sick, or the recollection of the Walts in my own family too fresh, but I just couldn’t find the funny.
Beyond that reappearing obstacle, the acting outside of Eastwood’s left something to be desired and some of the scenes were just too damn long. Sue invites Walt over for a large family dinner and while the older women fawning over him and his obvious enjoyment of their food was amusing, a scene in which Sue takes him to the basement where the teens are all hanging out seemed endless. Walt is not cool, he’s old. And though Sue has grown fond of him, I was hard pressed to believe her friends would take to him quickly if at all. Both Her and Vang show promise as actors, but in many of the scenes, their lines were blocky and stilted due in no part to their characters’ initial discomfort around Walt.
Walt’s willingness to fall on his sword for these strangers after mere weeks or days of knowing them in spite of what it would do to his children and grandchildren was also a difficult pill for me to swallow. But my film folks reminded me that Walt’s family were a bunch of selfish brats. Fine, but it just seemed manipulative to me. It was meant to jerk tears and more than one person in the audience was sniffling at the end of the movie.
Admittedly, I didn’t feel well and maybe didn’t allow myself to be pulled fully into that realm where my disbelief is completely suspended and I surrender to the fantasy that 90 minutes at the movies offers. And because of that, I’m willing to drop another 10 spot to try again or at least put Gran Torino on my Netflix queue when it comes out on DVD. Eastwood is just that damn good.