Note: Thanks to Sylvia for reminding me I need to write this.
When I posted my Best of 2008 list I got a few emails from readers who were surprised that I picked Gran Torino as the best move of the year over The Dark Knight since they knew what a big Batman fan I am and how much I raved about the movie.
Yes, I loved The Dark Knight. It had everything you want as far as good writing, great special effects, wonderful acting, and a wicked plot. However, it lacked the personal intimacy of Grand Torino. And though both movies had themes of redemption, atonement, and salvation, Gran Torino did it on a more personal and, therefore, more powerful way.
In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood starts as a grumpy, racist, Korean War vet named Walt. The Detroit neighborhood he lives in is falling apart, controlled by gangs, and inhabited by Asian people who Walt despises. To top it off, he has a strained relationship with his two sons, a catholic priest, and has a bunch of spoiled grandkids.
The movie revolves around Walt’s relationship with the Lors – a Hmong family that lives next door. As part of his initiation into a Hmong gang, the neighbor kid named Thao (Bee Vang) breaks into Walts’s garage to steal his vintage Gran Torino. As a result he inadvertently ends up getting involved in the lives of Thoa and his older sister Sue (Ahney Her) and defending them against violent intimidation.
Slowly we see Walt’s toughness melt away as the kindness from the Lors makes him realize that they’re just like anyone else. This is where the movie could have run down the path of being your typical Can’t-We-Just-All-Get-Along movie. But the movie doesn’t focus on Walt’s acceptance of the Lors (thought that happens). Instead it focuses on Walt and what’s makes him one of the most complex characters in recent cinema history.
What really makes the movie, however, is the ending. No, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it’s an extremely moving ending that has surprised everyone that’s seen it. It makes the movie and gives the movie a deeply satisfying conclusion.
Gran Torino isn’t a perfect movie. Some of the acting from Vang and Her is far from perfect. But the best movies are the ones with the best special effects and well-known actors. Instead they’re the ones that show real, complex characters trying to make the best in the world we live in.
Grand Torino wasn’t a movie I expected to like. I have a love hate relationship with Clint Eastwood movies. Some have been great while others have been plain awful. I’ve never really forgiven Eastwood for royally screwing up Mystic River. Eastwood, however, redeemed himself with a realistic movie that shows the audience that not one is beyond redemption. Best of all, the film reminds us what the true definition if love really is.
One word of warning. Gran Torino contains a lot of foul and racist language. If you’re uncomfortable with that, don’t see it. But if you can look past that, you’ll see a moving story of atonement and salvation that makes it the best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Gran Torino **** stars (out of 4).