More than an Oscar for Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood deserves a lifetime achievement award for his steadfastedness in being Clint Eastwood. More than any other, the actor has been true to a persona that goes way beyond Dirty Harry to his very first western with Sergio Leone, 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars.
Over the last half century, he has always been not quite the same and not quite different: tall, thin, ramrod straight, gunslinger for the right cause, polishing various facets of similar characters without becoming monotonous, remaining faithful to the original without repeating himself, a feat that probably no one else would have been capable of.
In Gran Torino, he is still laconic, his voice now gravelly, hoarse from disuse. He embodies here an independent, libertarian American, a white man whose racism is more one of habit than of conviction.
Walt Kowalski, a decorated Korean vet and long-time automotive worker has just lost his wife of many years and is emotionally distant from his two bland grown sons and their families. After a rocky start with his Hmong neighbors (hill people from Vietnam and neighboring countries) and an incident involving his lovingly maintained and polished 1972 Gran Torino, circumstances make him take them under his protection.
Old habits die hard, so Kowalski still calls his neighbors gooks as the relation evolves and makes them closer to family than anything he’s known. Eastwood the actor is directed unerringly by Eastwood the director. The lighter moments give way to an unexpected ending that in retrospect seems like the only possible one. The strength of Gran Torino is that the right note is struck every time as the spotlight falls on one aspect and one character after another: The determined Irish Catholic priest, the Italian barber, the two young Hmong siblings,the construction site, the seedy neighborhood with its predatory gangs, there is no filler, everything is essential.
Every emotion is true and devoid of the type of sentimentality that marred films like Million Dollar Baby. Audiences applauding as end credits roll show they are well aware that Clint Eastwood long ago clinched his position as an institution but with Gran Torino proves once again that there is nothing hallowed, distant, or static about him.