Edit: I realise this film has already been reviewed at willsfreeswim but it only came out in the UK last week, so there. There is an argument that Clint Eastwood is exorcising old demons with the films he has been making recently. Unforgiven was about what happened when the Man with No Name got old and stale. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were a way for him to look at what war is really like, for both sides, not just the badass Nazi killers. In a similar vein, Gran Torino could be subtitled What if Dirty Harry Retired? It treads a similar path to the previously mentioned films, it looks at what happens to our heroes when they finally become old and stale, what happens when the values they lived by become old hat, conservative or offensive, and it's none the worse for it.
In this film Eastwood portrays crotchety old man, former soldier and car maker Walt Kowalski. He's an angry man. Angry that he had to fight in Korea, angry that his wife died, angry that before she died she asked her earnest, young priest to make him go to confession and angry that men have become 'pussies'. He's angry about his spoilt, vile children (who don't drive American) and grandchildren (who want his stuff when he dies and don't make a secret of it), that his Hmong grandmother neighbour can spit tobacco further than him, that his neighbourhood is full of gooks, chinks, latinos, niggers and gangbangers.
He stacked gooks five high in Korea and used 'em for sandbags for God's sake! The plot is centred around Walt, and the redemption that a few weeks towards the end of his life offer him. After an incident when he saves his next-door neighbour, Thao, from some Asian thugs, and then his sister from some black gang members, he becomes a hero to the neighbourhood. Gradually, he gets to know his neighbours, to realise that 'he has more in common with them', people who live by strong values, than he does his own family. He teaches their son how to be a man, teaches a few neighbourhood idiots a lesson.
In the end though, things start to backfire. There are consequences for living like Dirty Harry, and they hit home hard before the end, an uplifting blend of John Wayne's last film, The Shootist and Good Will Hunting. In the hands of other directors and actors, the whole thing could have become crass garbage, an overwrought piece about learning from thy neighbour. In the hands of Eastwood it becomes so much more. Always restrained as a director but always looking for the subtlety and emotion in a scene, Eastwood doesn't need dialogue to tell you the truth, to tell you someone's been raped, or what his character really thinks.
Eastwood as an actor in this film is the same, half sad, haunted old man, half absolute blue-collar hardass, you always know which is which. No other actor could have played the part so well. The film as a whole is a result of this dichotomy. Much of it is laugh out loud funny, as Walt is taught his neighbours' customs, or as he teaches the young Thao to, you know, be a man. No character is simple, they all have another side. Walt himself may hate the world, but he knows what's right and what's wrong and he loves his dog, his Grand Torino and his friends, including his Hmong neighbours and his priest.
By the end though, you sense that Eastwood also knows that Walt is a relic, that his 'right' actions have had disastrous consequences for those he has come to care about. As his world crashes into someone else's, the film reaches its denouement, a moment of clarity, a last way for Walt to stick it to everyone and everything he hates. As I said before, it's tremendously bittersweet. I would urge you to go and see this film.
Much of Eastwood's previous work has been great, but perhaps too earnest. Here he elicits performances, humour and emotions from his excellent cast in a way that he hasn't before. Plus, his character is at points so old-school badass that you sit on the edge of your seat and wonder whether Dirty Harry really has re-arisen. A complex, emotional and subtle piece of cinema, Gran Torino will make you feel lucky, punk.