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“Get off my lawn”

You can see the fat Hmong kid lying on grass, literally crap in his pants as he stares up the barrel of 78 year old Walt Kowalski’s shotgun. The way Walt’s thin lips curl backwards menacingly and his eyes contract to mere slits of terror, reminds the audience again, that they are in the presence of the grand old man in Hollywood. In 2008’s Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood, even with wrinkles, is as lethal as Blondie in the 1966 classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. And I was one of the few lucky ones in India, to catch him on the Big Screen. This movie came with absolutely no marketing, and I went because one of the 3 theaters in Mumbai playing this movie was in my neighbourhood. And because I love Clint Eastwood.

Gran Torino is a rare movie. It is beguilingly simple… but tremendous social relevance lurks around the heart. The movie may be about an ageing Korean-war veteran and retired Ford employee, trying to come to terms with the changing suburban landscape which he finds – to his displeasure – being increasingly proliferated by “Chinks”… but it is really about a man haunted by his past, alienated by his selfish children, finding purpose and closure through the most unexpected sources. He stands out as a dying yet proud relic, amongst a community of Hmongs (a race of people from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) who now dominated his suburb outside Detroit, trying to hold his own amidst change – until he realizes that sometimes the best way to deal with change is to give into it.

After his wife’s death, an increasingly isolated Walt Kowalski, Mr. Eastwood’s character, grudgingly befriends his Hmong neighbours, when he saves their young boy Thao (who he calls “Toad”) from the hands of a gang of Hmong thugs. As he slowly and cautiously wades through the intricate layers of Hmong community – he realizes that he has more in common with these “swamp rats” than his own family.  Chris Carley plays the role of a young priest who, driven by a promise made to Walt’s wife, tries to get Walt to church to confess and absolve his sins – much to Walt’s chagrin – but later himself learns a few things about life and death from Walt.

The movie weaves a complex tapestry of self-realization through Walt’s growing involvment with the Hmong family – and maintains a steady stream of humor, heart-wrenching emotion and tension all the way through to the brilliant climax. Though I will not give the end away – it would suffice to say that Walt finds peace.

Clint Eastwood, who also directed the movie, is singularly brilliant throughout. His dialogues, though full of racial cliches, are very accurate in depicting the mindset of “old” America in the face of a global one. Critics of the movie have derided some of the words used by Walt, or some of the scenes with strong racial overtones – but I am impressed that Mr. Eastwood is brave enough to show it as it is – while being delicate and telling a wonderfully refreshing story.

I would recommend this movie to all discerning lovers of cinema. Watch it when you get the chance. They don’t make movies like Gran Torino any more.