Gran Torino

“It seems you know more about death than you do about living”. It’s an assumption lined with sorrow, it’s a statement based around regret, it’s aimed at Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War veteran who has recently been widowed – although his innate distain at the world and everyone within it was ingrained long before his wife’s passing. It’s also the central theme of Clint Eastwood’s simmering drama, a film which questions whether a man can ever hope to find peace if his conscience is tainted by the memory of death.

{{ quote Lean, clean and astutely executed, the film’s ability to engage and affect lingers like gun smoke }}

Walt Kowalski is a tormented and bitter man, unable to forgive his failures as a father, and ultimately disgruntled with a human race that continues to destroy itself through its bloodletting ways. But when Theo (Bee Vang), a Hmong teenager struggling to evade the sinful escapades of the town’s local hoodlums, begins to look up to him, Walt ultimately finds not so much redemption as a sense of inner peace and a reason to fight for human goodness.

Exploring questions of life and death, and written by relative newcomer Nick Schenk, Gran Torino is another instance in the Eastwood oeuvre that examines the ethical dimension of vengeance, and in turn reinforces with real conviction how violence corrupts the soul. That’s certainly not to say that the film, titled after the 1972 car that Walt immaculately preserves as a symbol of how his past has shaped his future, has nothing new to offer. In fact, it’s a testament to Eastwood, in what is said to be his final acting performance, that he doesn’t reinforce the old myth that violence is the only acceptable answer to violence. Rather, and somewhat fittingly for an actor renowned for his iconic portrayal of the trigger-happy cinematic anti-hero, Eastwood mourns this figure and his trigger-pulling urges, presenting them as an unliveable curse, and ultimately suggesting that even true sacrifice is not enough to instigate salvation for a wicked heart.

At an astonishing 78 years of age, Eastwood gives a terrifically stark, wounded performance, one that evokes the many staple American anti-heroes of Eastwood’s past. An entire lifetime of vengeful performances is clear to see in Walt Kowalski – if the gun-slinging Man-With-No-Name is the blood that pumps through Walt’s veins then Dirty Harry Callaghan’s disgruntled worldview is what dictates his sense of honour. And like William Munny in Unforgiven, Walt is a man haunted by his violent past, a past that refuses to free his guilty soul.

As Walt sits on his porch snarling with repulsion at the teenagers who contaminate his town with crime and bullying, we cannot help but notice the faded American flag that hangs above the porch like a symbol of a failed religion. Blinded by his own abhorrence towards a guilty world, it doesn’t quite dawn on Walt that the American Dream has been as much of an empty lie to the hapless younger generation as it most certainly has been for Walt.

Lean, clean, astutely executed – Gran Torino may be stripped-down in design and budget but the film’s ability to engage and affect lingers like gun smoke. As a closing swan song to American gun-slinging mythology, this is a terrifically understated yet hell-bent salute to Eastwood’s magnificent life in movies.

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