“Nothing propinks like propinquity.” – Ian Fleming
“Gran Torino” begins with the funeral service for the late wife of retired auto-worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood). We see at once that Walt is a man at odds with the world around him. Instead of the show of affection and mutual support we might expect at a funeral, we see clear signs of his estrangement from his family. Instead of taking some comfort from the Catholic ritual, he must work to hide his disdain for his parish’s baby-faced priest.
The reception at Walt’s home following the service reinforces this impression. With the sole exception of his dog Daisy, Walt is at odds with everyone, especially the Hmong family that lives next door. He is visibly angry about the influx of immigrants into his neighborhood, and his sotto voce mutterings reveal a deeply prejudiced man. Of Polish descent himself, it never occurs to Walt that his own ancestors were once in the same position that his neighbors are in now. A veteran of the Korean War, he still carries a full complement of wartime prejudices.
His experiences during that war are never far from Walt’s mind; in fact, they live with him constantly. In a sense, he is still fighting the Korean War, and still seeking absolution for deeds he committed then. Reflecting on his wartime experiences, he tells the priest, “The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.”
Despite his wish to be left alone, circumstances soon force Walt to interact with his neighbors. He rescues the older sister Sue (Ahney Her) from the attentions of three young toughs, and works to keep the younger brother Thao (Bee Vang) out of the clutches of a neighborhood gang. As he spends time with Sue and Thao, he develops a genuine affection for them. He defends Thao like he would his own son, and finds in him an opportunity to make amends for having kept his own two sons at arm’s length all their lives. Ultimately, he begins to take pride in Thao, to respect him, and at the movie’s end, tells him, “I’m proud to say that you’re my friend.”
Simply put, “Gran Torino” is about atonement. Walt is given a chance to atone for his mistakes in raising his sons, and for the needless killing of a young Chinese soldier in Korea. His willingness to change and to set aside the prejudices of a lifetime is a testament to his underlying decency. Through Walt’s acceptance of his Hmong neighbors, the movie makes a strong case that you can only hate what you don’t know, and calls to mind a proverb from Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: “Nothing propinks like propinquity.”
Special mention must be made of the sure hand shown by screenwriter Nick Schenk. It is his dialog that gives “Gran Torino” much of its punch, not to mention its moments of comic relief, without which it would seem unrelievedly grim.
Clint Eastwood, who turned 79 last May, has lost none of the acting and directing savvy that has marked so much of his recent work, including “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). “Gran Torino” marks his first acting role since his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby”. As Walt Kowalski, he is unforgettable, and as director, he elicits excellent performances from the entire supporting cast. Though you should bear in mind the language and violence of the streets in which the story takes place, this is a Clint Eastwood movie with heart, and I would unhesitatingly recommend “Gran Torino” to anyone old enough to drive.