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“Gran Torino” introduces Eastwood’s darkest character yet

Eastwood (sort of) befriends neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) in "Gran Torino."

Eastwood (sort of) befriends neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) in "Gran Torino."

There’s a line in “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood’s snarling, snapping bulldog of a movie, that resonates like no other. “The thing that haunts a guy,” Korean War vet Walt Kowalski growls to a priest, “is the stuff he wasn’t ordered to do.”  Holed up on a porch with a loaded shotgun, a six-pack and a steely glare, Eastwood’s Kowalski is overrun with demons he’s too stubborn to let loose. He’s fighting a private war, and even saying “hello” to his Asian neighbors, for this man, means admitting defeat.

It’s a smart move on Eastwood’s part, playing Kowalski as a tight-lipped, racist S.O.B., because it makes for a hateful yet endlessly fascinating character. He delights in lobbing every racial slur he knows — and some, I believe, he gleefully made up — at the Hmong family next door, yet he rescues the oldest daughter Sue (Ahney Her, a spritely find who holds her own against Eastwood) from a group of neighborhood thugs. He’s openly hateful to Sue’s brother, the quiet, studious Thao (Bee Vang), but scares away the Hmong gangbangers recruiting the boy. Walt’s an exercise in contradiction, but Eastwood never goes for excess; every mean squint, every barbed comment is deliberate.

So, too, are the elements of the story Eastwood uses to draw us in. The Detroit Ford auto plant retiree, who’s just buried his wife, believes he’s got no use for anyone or anything besides his beer, his gun, his 1972 Ford Gran Torino and his porch. Then he catches Thao trying to steal his prized car, and Sue offers Thao’s services as an apology. Later, Walt grimly accepts an invitation to eat dinner with Sue’s family, where he looks at everyone with disgust he doesn’t try to hide. But slowly Sue and Thao draw the crotchedy misanthrope into their lives, and slowly Walt starts to care about something other than insulting or shooting at them.

Wait. That last sentences makes “Gran Torino” sound like some chintzy remake of “Finding Forrester.” Far from it — the beauty of “Gran Torino” is the hardness Eastwood brings to Kowalski. Sure, he does “good deeds,” even helps people he downright hates, but Walt’s not the hero. He’s the other guy, and he’s plenty happy to keep right on being him until he’s six feet under. There’s something refreshing about an actor who gives voice to the other guys: the William Munnys, the Luther Whitneys, the Frankie Dunns. Kowalski might be hardest hardass Eastwood’s ever played. This is Oscar-caliber work, plain and simple.

Then again, Eastwood’s made a very fine career of writing and playing Oscar-worthy outsiders. He knows those guys are far more intriguing than heroes. And he also knows the outsiders go out with a bang, not a whimper. So if it’s true that “Gran Torino” signals Eastwood’s retirement from acting, well, it’s one hell of a way to go.

Grade: A