Gran Torino is a film containing a number of common archetypes: the grumpy old man who finds hope, the coming-of-age teenager, the well-kept old car that symbolizes hope, the decent people versus the gangs, and the grieving and broken person who finds redemption in self-sacrifice. I think the movie pulls the pieces together successfully.
Clint Eastwood plays a Korean war vet (Walt Kowalski) who is the last white resident in a run-down Detroit neighborhood that is now home to many Hmong immigrants. The movie opens with the funeral of Kowalski’s wife and Eastwood is seemingly mad at the whole world early in the film. But, Kowalski finds meaning by the end.
Some quick thoughts:
1. Kowalski is an ancient relic in modern Detroit. At one point, his elderly Hmong neighbor asks him why as a white person he is still living in this neighborhood in Detroit. He used to work in an auto factory and believes in hard work and (excessive) insults to interact with other men.
2. The movie is named after a car but it is mainly a plot device. The real center of the movie is the relationships that Walt forms with his neighbors.
3. There is a lot of commentary on today’s world built into this movie.
a. Diversity and immigration are key themes. Even with seemingly important outward differences, Walt, despite his politically incorrect language, is able to find common ground with his new neighbors.
b. The younger generation vs. the older generation. Walt may look old and act in confounding ways but he knows what true virtue is. The two main Hmong teenagers in the film come across as kind and industrious even as the Hmong gang members (and gang members of other backgrounds) are portrayed as losers. Walt’s kids and grandkids are made out to be rather horrible. One female teenage grandchild is particularly singled out as she can only think of what she might get when Walt dies. The young Catholic priest is virtuous but ultimately naive about matters of life and death.
This movie attempts to do a lot in 116 minutes but is ultimately likable.
(The film was generally well-received by critics: on RottenTomatoes, 210 reviews with 168 fresh/80%.)