Leave it to Clint Eastwood to make a drama that generates more belly-busting laughs than most recent comedies and more insight into what drives and satisfies the human spirit than the majority of 2008's indie Oscar-bait put together.
As Gran Torino's Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, Eastwood offers us a thoroughly unlikable character that manages, even in his unrepentant racism, to win our favor. He pulls this trick off by, first, realistically addressing the culture clashes that are as annoying as they are unavoidable in a melting pot like ours and, second, by depicting the ugly side of middle-class America just as much as he depicts the gang-violence typical of poor immigrant neighborhoods. It's not pretty, and neither is Walt, but he is made more so in that he doesn't pull punches no matter what group he's assaulting, even his own.
But doling out punches (however deserved) is hardly a path to a fulfilling life. Once he is forced to interact with his Hmong neighbors, Walt finds that empty tolerance isn't the answer to overcoming differences; building real relationships is.
Eastwood clearly understands what his persona as an actor has meant to American cinema, and with Gran Torino, he trades in on his icon status brilliantly. The gravel-voiced threat, the prolonged squint, the sotto voce snarl-all make regular appearances as Walt confronts gang-bangers of every ethnic stripe in his declining Detroit neighborhood. But rather than merely imparting an exhilarating sense of justice, these trademark elements are also used to cast light on some uncomfortable questions: Is clinging to every bit of nostalgic Americana really patriotic, or is it sometimes exclusionary? Do some immigrants fail to assimilate because they don't want to or because natural-born citizens fail to reach out to them? It is precisely because of his status as an icon of heartland masculinity that Eastwood is able to take on this sensitive subject with far more integrity (not to mention authenticity) than films like 2004's Crash managed.
Gran Torinounquestionably earns it's R-rating with more obscenities and racial invective this side of a Quentin Tarantino movie. But unlike the films of lesser directors, the language here is rarely window dressing. Though a few exchanges strike a gratuitous note, it would be impossible to fully convey the spiritual evolution of the bitter, godless, and racist Walt Kowalski without making him sound, well, bitter, godless, and racist. In a twist that elevates Gran Torino far above the typical vengeance-wreaking flick, Walt discovers that the greatest satisfaction comes not from proving you were right but from sacrificing to right your wrongs.
Gran Torino opens in theaters nationally, Friday, January 9.
(Note: This movie review did not appear in the print edition of the Jan. 17, 2009, issue of WORLD, but is offered online as a Web Extra.)