In his new excellent film, Gran Torino, the audience is introduced to Clint Eastwood by means of a growl: a deep, canine beast of a sound from Walt Kowalski, a recently-widowed, grizzled Korean War veteran. He’s expressing displeasure at his grandchildren, who have arrived at his wife’s funeral inappropriately dressed. We hear that growl again later at the wake, after the Grumpy Old Man brushes off the priest as “an overeducated 27-year old virgin”, and looks with disdain at the Hmong immigrants celebrating the birth of a baby next door.
The growl is a perfect symbol for the film; it’s consciously over-the-top and unsubtle embroidery, but it emanates naturally and organically from Kowalski’s larger-than-life character. Here, Eastwood proves that he himself is the best steward of his identity as an American icon. It’s a tricky performance, though: we’re asked to accept him as a beaten-down, PBR-guzzling bigot, and it’s Nick Schenk’s screenplay, deftly treading between nail-biting drama and scabrous comedy, that makes it work.