Stewing in the poison of a half-century of post-traumatic stress disorder, Clint Eastwood’s ornery bigot Walt Kowalski, the antihero of this western-like tragicomedy set in a contemporary Michigan suburb, sits on his front porch pounding cans of PBR and bemoaning the influx of “zipperheads and gooks” in his formerly white neighborhood. Sparring with his late wife’s earnest young priest (shades of Million Dollar Baby), Walt spits contempt at callow platitudes about life and death, but since his return from the Korean War the vet has led an emotionally disabled existence. Combative with his weary, self-interested adult children and retired from a career assembling Fords, he lives for little more than maintaining his home and his beloved ‘72 Gran Torino until Thao (Bee Vang), the introverted Hmong teenager next door, is goaded by a cousin’s gang into attempting to steal the vintage car.
Gran Torino being a Clint showcase helmed by the Last Movie Star himself, Walt’s reformation is nearly inevitable, but skirts being cloying on the strength of the 78-year-old icon’s raspy brusqueness; he flavors the sentimentality with a dash of bitters. Nick Schenk’s screenplay is an archetypal one, full of broad strokes, that could’ve emerged in some form in earlier Hollywood history (the ambivalent racial melodrama of The Searchers comes to mind), but it’s a serviceable frame for Eastwood’s possible valedictory as an actor. To its credit, throughout Walt’s evolution from leveling his rifle at Thao to defending the youth and his high-spirited, fearless sister (Ahney Her) against local gangbangers, the old man’s torrent of slurs never flags. What the movie loses in some of its labored comedy of invective—Thao being tutored in the Caucasian jerkwad dozens during a barbershop visit—it gains in its refusal to make Walt as cuddly as late-era Archie Bunker. (Though in relentless close-up, to see this curmudgeon curl his upper lip and emit a disgusted groan fulfills the Oscar-night joke from In & Out: “And the nominees are…Clint Eastwood in Coot.”)
Tom Stern’s cinematography often forgoes its usual deep shadows in favor of bright sunlight that gives Walt no place to hide, whether obsessively grooming his cherished property with a manual mower or glowering through a grim birthday party where his kids look to nudge him into assisted living. Both of the young supporting principals appealingly hold the screen in their interplay with Eastwood, but it’s his show once a predictably violent turn offers a chance to further refine the image-revising endings of Unforgiven and A Perfect World. Eastwood’s portrayal of Walt echoes a career capper of his predecessor John Wayne, but rather than the self-parodying True Grit it’s the similarly mournful The Shootist (directed by Clint mentor Don Siegel). If Gran Torino’s climactic showdown is the erstwhile Dirty Harry’s last as a leading man, conducted with a strategy at the polar opposite from the Man with No Name’s, it’s a final lament that the way of the gun is a guarantor of self-destructive pain.