Clint Eastwood has in recent years produced thoughtful and moving cinematic expositions, both in front of and behind the camera, on a variety of themes (Bird, Unforgiven, Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby). I expect Gran Torino (2008) will be included among his better works but consider younger generations that have never seen Dirty Harry, Josey Wales or “the Man with No Name” in action. Aside from missing the greatness of these characters, there is also the context of their artistic existence that implicitly informs so much of Eastwood’s later endeavors.
The first half of the director/actor’s career, starting in the late 1950’s, saw him become an iconic “man’s man” embracing violence, war and vigilantism. While some of his 1960’s/70’s portrayals are among my favorites, if Clint had tried to indefinitely maintain that demeanor it could be seen as analogous to a young, virile rock star who looks foolish trying to carry his pomp and swagger into later years. Since the late 1980’s his best films have tackled the contradictions of his early work by embraced “old age,” deconstructed his Western mythology and laying bare the heartbreak of war.
Gran Torino stands firmly in this lineage. It is a story that if someone described to me as in the following paragraphs yet without reference to Clint, I would probably have minimal interest. It is Eastwood’s grounded performance that is the emotional center of the movie and embodies an iconic lead character that thematically echoes the violent, hard-edged portrayals of Harry Callahan (the vocal patterns and clinched jaw are strikingly similar) in the same way that Unforgiven’s William Munny juxtaposes the “the Man with No Name.”
Eastwood portrays Walter Kowalski as a cantankerous, self-righteous and bigoted retired Ford employee who sits on his porch sipping cheap American beer and watching the values he defended in the Korean War erode around him (in fact, he has no qualms about bluntly, and often offensively, expressing his distaste with everything “non-American”). Gran Torino begins with the loss of his wife, who appears to have been one of the last anchoring elements in his life, and acutely shows Walter’s estrangement from his community and family (though based on his attitude it is hard to blame them even as shallow as they are portrayed).
Walter’s prized 1972 Gran Torino, which he personally helped assemble, is where the movie gets its namesake. The car epitomizes the American way that the character fought and worked for over the past 50 years and is so resistant to see evolve. It also acts as an anchor to the plot when Walter catches Thao (Bee Vang), a bright but misguided neighbor kid, attempting to steal the car as a reluctant gang initiation. This creates an opportunity for his life to slowly become intertwined with Thao’s family, the Lors, as much as Walter wishes the opposite seeing them as stereotypical of everything he despises about “foreign” values that have invaded his neighborhood and way of life.
After Walter defends Thao and his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from the local gang’s further attempts at recruitment (this is not out of a kindness but rather because the gang encroaches onto his lawn, and the movie early on makes clear that he wants no interlopers on his carefully groomed and guarded property), the Lors warm to the curmudgeon. Considering how bitter and vile the main character is presented, he seems like a lost cause. But the neighbor family, armed with food and constant good humor, struggle through his hostility and abundance of racial epithets (the language barrier helps here). At the same time, Walter takes Thao under his wing teaching the boy the value of honest work and in turn being impressed with his work ethic.
While on the surface Gran Torino tells of Walt evolving beyond his narrow horizons, it also, as mentioned, addresses the legacy of Eastwood’s violent characters and the mentality that makes them as they are. The story culminates in the foreseeable confrontation between Walter and the local gang but not in the precise details I expected. Without giving away specifics, the ending was not what I wanted but was very possibly what I needed. The movie has some weak points such as somewhat mundane acting from the supporting roles and some predictable plot points, but all of this is easily forgiven in the light of the affecting intensity that Eastwood instills in his direction and acting. The passionate emotional core of Gran Torino outshines its deficits and allows Clint to bookend another area of his career, both honoring and re-contextualizing his Dirty Harry characterization.
Warner brings Gran Torino to Blu-ray with their standard 1080p VC-1 encode preserving the theatrical framing of 2.40:1. Eastwood has never made visually showy movies, and the stylized, muted color palette services the narrative well but does not give a lot of room for the high-def image to pop. While the transfer does not contend with the absolute best of HD, there is little to complain about as print damage is absent, grain is light throughout, blacks are deep with no resolution issues, there is a nice dimensionality and detail is overall good. I noticed a slight softness about the visuals but will admit that for every movie I have viewed where Eastwood was director and had artistic control, the image has been somewhat soft for my tastes. Consider this a continuation of his artistic expression and enjoy the satisfying transfer that inconspicuously supports the narrative.
I am happy to report that the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (48khz/16 bit) is the default audio on this disc. After this being the case on another recent Warner review, I was not sure if they were making this a standard, but it is nice not to have to make a point to switch to the lossless track. The audio compliments the needs of the film much like the video and is very basic and subdued, which is all the film requires. Dialog, which is the film’s mainstay, is clear and even in the fronts (though there are moments when Walt’s grumbling may be a bit hard to distinguish), and only in rare occasions, such as certain violent exchanges or moments of action, does the audio bleed into the rears. Still, this is nothing to hold against this track as it delivers a good level of clarity and detail for what is needed.
Additional audio is available as Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese with subtitles in English (SDH), French, Portuguese and Spanish.
Supplemental material is fairly anemic with only a handful of supplements including a digital copy and BD-Live access. Yet the best is exclusive to Blu-ray (The Eastwood Way) and all sans the digital copy are in HD. Eastwood has never done commentaries so the lack of one is not surprising, but some more meaty extras would have been nice.
The Eastwood Way (19:18, HD) – This is an interesting but far too short featurette detailing the basic themes of the movie. Eastwood and supporting cast (most specifically Bee Vang and Ahney Her) give details about filming and the inclusion of the Hmong society portrayed in the film.
Manning the Wheel (9:23, HD) – This extra delves into the general obsession with cars and how it is portrayed in the movie. It is very interesting but way too short to do the subject justice.
Gran Torino: More Than a Car (3:57, HD) – The overly short extra echoes the previous supplement’s interest in cars and their place in society.
I was not exactly sure what to expect from Gran Torino but was more than pleasantly surprised. Some nitpicks aside, the overall presentation carries through with an affecting and persuasive story. Eastwood fans will not be disappointed by his subtle yet intense portrayal of Walter Kowalski which probably will be remembered as one of his better performances.
Warner’s Blu-ray arrives with competent video and audio that support the director’s artistic intentions well. Sadly, we only get a few, thin extras which may imply an eventual double-dip, but I would not hold my breath for it happening anytime soon. The quality of the movie and, most specifically, Clint’s performance make the lacking supplements fairly easy to overlook and this a nice high-def release.
– Robert Searle