Gran Torino is a nearly perfect companion piece to The Wrestler, two movies where American males faced with the end of their era make tough decisions about very real sacrifice. Those who appreciate watching men do flawless work in the role of “male” can hate these two movies all day long and still find much to enjoy. In Tornio, Clint Eastwood is Clint Eastwood playing Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker in the Detroit suburbs. Eastwood fans like yours truly will delight in abundant Clint-isms, and a camera that rarely leaves his wizened visage.
The movie, like Eastwood, is archetypal. You know the plot: an older guy, stuck in his ways, meets people that he initially distrusts but, through an unlikely friendship, learns a valuable lesson. What makes Gran Torino good is that it manages to work some real magic from this tired cliché. What makes Gran Torino interesting is that its goodness, as in nearly all Eastwood movies, is squeezed from not merely a tired cliché but from a deeply conservative ideology. (Conservative movie makers take note: rather than hype your movie to Rush Limbaugh only to see nobody buy tickets, instead make a good movie and don’t tell anybody about your agenda. It’s more subversively effective that way.) The old American male may be stubborn, may have some views that are out-of-synch with contemporary values, but nevertheless, through struggle, his essential rightness is revealed. The movie isn’t merely conservative, it’s a crypto-Catholic morality tale about the lust for revenge, where the moral is that it is only through sacrifice can an essential rightness be restored. All these details make it sound deeply problematic, but the real joy of watching Eastwood at work is undeniable and Torino surely ranks among his best and most satisfying work.