Get off my lawn!

Gran Torino

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis



            When Clint Eastwood curls his lip, he might as well be holding an AK-47. In “Gran Torino” he plays Walt Kowalski as the ultimate parody of himself. There really isn’t much more he could do to refine the image he has created. A tower of calm – whether he is blowing someone away with a gun or with words - he stands alone as a silent figure of justice. 

            Here he is, a monument standing on the front porch of his house in a distinctly seedy Michigan neighborhood. The wife he loved has just died; he has a greedy son and daughter-in-law, and the neighborhood has shifted from the blue collar automobile workers who were his peers to immigrant Asians. Local gangs of Mexicans, Asians, and blacks troll the streets and jump start this movie when they focus on the Hmong family living next door to Walt. Their blunder. 

            From scene one all the way to the marvelous wrap-up, Walt spews forth a relentless stream of ethnic invective. “How many brats can you get in one small room?” The audience reacts with audible gasps until it becomes clear that this is Walt’s bitter way with everyone, a fact underscored by visits to his Italian barber when the two of them plunge into dueling insults. When two of his young neighbors, brother and sister Thao (Bee Young) and Sue (Ahney Her), begin to see through Walt’s cover, they insult the old man in kind and the invective becomes high humor. These two young actors bring the laughter to the movie.

            So it’s humor among the good guys; we can laugh at that. But it’s violence among the bad, and there is nothing funny about these gangs. The audience, confused early on, relaxes enough to take whatever director Eastwood throws at them. At first the premise seemed simple: nasty old man meets Chinese immigrants who bring transformation. Not quite. Eastwood is far cleverer than that. In this movie, words are his primary weapons and his carefully crafted surprise is not an ordinary one. 

            In a memorable scene, Walt sits on his front porch staring at the treasured Gran Torino he helped build in 1972 as a Ford assembly line worker. It is parked at the perfect angle for his enjoyment of its polished perfection. Memorable too is the fact that, as the credits roll, quietly, in the background, Eastwood is singing a gentle song. But the line from this movie that will endure as pure Clint is: “Get off my lawn!” Whenever he says it, the words become a metaphor for his whole value system.

            The man is an institution not just because of his face and force, but because he is unpredictable. He writes scripts and songs, directs and produces, sings and acts, and surprises us repeatedly without telegraphing his punches. The only predictable thing about Clint Eastwood is that violence inflicted will bring retribution from the world’s most famous vigilante.


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