Gran Torino is also not a grand film. Much of it takes place in a small Detroit suburb that has morphed into a place with many different races, classes and generations all vying to raise families, keep jobs and survive.
Eastwood is Wait Kowalski, a retired autoworker who is first seen at the wake of his wife. Whatever emotions he has over her death are kept well hidden, Kowalski is a man with few words yet simmers with plenty of scowls and a deep anger inside, He likes his daily Pabst Blue Ribbon beer chugging on his front porch, keeps his lawn tidy and in general, enjoys his small routines.
The family next door certainly interrupts his sense of whatever well being he has. He has words for them: they’re chinks, gooks, meddlesome, noisy and bring up buried memories of his time spent in the Korean War.
And when Thao, the young boy next door, is caught messing with Kowalski’s prized green Gran Torino as a kind of initiation process for a local gang, he definitely takes more of an interest in the family next door.
Thao’s friendly sister Sue (Ahney Her in such a likeable role that it would be good to see more of her) then apologizes and urges Kowalski to give Thao household chores as a kind of punishment.
And that’s when this small but important film begins to grow wings. Kowalski learns that his neighbors aren’t faceless Asians, but rather, Hmong from Laos. He is invited into their home where he may not understand what the elders have to say, but he begins to appreciate their customs, their code and their way of living.
He takes the socially insecure Thao under his wing and takes him to a barbershop where Kowalski’s equally racist barber jokingly engages in racial slurs. It’s an awkward scene, yet it shows how different generations have approached race relations.
Between Sue’s kindness and Thao’s work ethic, Kowalski begins to appreciate them more than his own family, who he sees intermittently and who are obnoxiously living the ‘American Dream’.
And yes, just to keep it interesting for Dirty Harry (check out the Ultimate Collector’s Edition) fans, he will rear his head several times when the family next door is threatened. But that’s not what the film’s about. In Eastwood’s sure hands, it’s a 21st century message about tolerance, openness and gosh darn it, getting to know your neighbor.