Film Review:Gran Torino
For the last fifty years my grandmother has lived next-door to a man who served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. He went off to war a bachelor, and came home with a Korean wife. He was far from the only one. Many Americans who fought overseas eventually married natives of the countries they were ordered to invade, taking people who had been counted among the enemy into their families. Walt Kowalski was not one of these.
Walt is a man who still views the world in stark “Us vs. Them” terms. The people who have moved into his neighborhood the last few years are not Korean but Hmong — immigrants from China, Vietnam, Laos and other regions of Southeast Asia who fled following the end of the Vietnam War. This makes little difference to Walt. To him, they are all just a bunch of gooks.
Throughout history, probably since humans first noticed that they did not all look and act alike, racists the world over have been cultivating an immense glossary of exonyms to refer to despised or misunderstood out-groups. The lexicon of epithets used to describe Asians is particularly crowded — not just “gook,” but “slope,” “chink,” “Jap,” “nip,” “zip” (short for “zipperhead,” one of the more perplexing examples) — all of which are heard, repeatedly, from the mouth of one Walt Kowalski. But he doesn’t stop at Asians — Walt also refers to a group of young black men as “spooks,” and even addresses people he likes by the appropriate ethnic slur, calling his Italian barber a “guinea bastard,” and addressing an Irish construction foreman of his acquaintance as a “mick.”
When I’ve called my father on his racism, objected to his referring to people of obvious African descent (for instance) with brusque and impolite phraseology, he’s excused himself by claiming that he doesn’t just hate blacks, or Hispanics, or Asians, but everybody. I’m not sure how that would be a valid excuse even if it were true, but I’ve never bought it for a second, anyway. Not when Dad’s said it. Walt Kowalski, on the other hand . . . Walt Kowalski doesn’t have to say it. Watching him, it’s self-evident. He really does hate everybody.
There are two reasons to sit through Gran Torino, the film with this grizzled old bigot as its hero: Clint Eastwood the actor, and Clint Eastwood the director. Lacking either of those elements, it would not only totally fail as drama, but probably play as one of the most wildly offensive films since the premiere of Birth of a Nation in 1915.
Walt Kowalski is not likable. Clint Eastwood is. His on-screen persona has been so well-established for the last fifty years that we find ourselves not only interested in him, but liking him, even when he’s pelting his poor Hmong neighbors with racist abuse. It’s not offensive when Clint’s doing it — it’s funny, or it’s excused as being understandable under the circumstances. Mrs. Kowalski, afterall, has just died, and the funeral has brought Walt back into contact with his children and grandchildren, whose collective presence he can barely tolerate. He sees his oldest son’s job as a salesman of foreign cars as a betrayal — not only did Walt lose a lot of good friends fighting “those people” in Korea, but he worked for decades at a Ford plant in nearby Detroit. As his son and family drive away after the reception following Mrs. Kowalski’s funeral, Walt mutters bitterly, “Would it kill you to buy American?”
Eastwood does a lot of muttering as Walt. It seems, with his wife gone, that he spends most of his time sitting on his front porch, drinking beer and talking to himself. His delivery of these lines, Walt’s little asides to himself, struck me as particularly authentic. Is there something about men and women of a certain age that makes them talk to themselves more than younger people? Because that aspect of Eastwood’s performance rang especially true for me, made me recall my late and very much missed Pap in particular, who was never much of a porch-sitter, but who often looked out his living room window and provided his block with a sotto voce running commentary.
Estranged from his family, mourning his wife, left alone in his home with only his dog Daisy to keep him company, who could blame the guy for lashing out at his neighbors every once in awhile? I’m not trying to excuse Walt’s racism. To his credit, neither does Eastwood, who plays Walt without a single flinch. He is not a nice man. There are no cathartic speeches, there is no “here is why I’m a racist” scene, and Gran Torino is not a heartwarming fable where Walt sees the error of his ways, renounces his prejudices and embraces his Hmong brothers and sisters in the end. He does eventually befriend the Vang Lor family who live next-door, but he learns to see them as something other than “gooks” not as a result of some life-changing epiphany, but because circumstances drive them together, and he gradually gets to know them. Call it enlightenment through proximity. Even toward the end, when he has come to trust the family enough to leave his dog with their grandmother while he leaves to tend to some important business, Clint never quite loses the suspicious glint in his eye. (Though after all these years that might be permanent.)
Central to those aforementioned circumstances is Thao, teenage son of the Vang Lors, who Walt catches trying to steal his cherished vintage Gran Torino, a car he helped to build on the Ford assembly line in the 1970s. Thao is pushed into the theft by his cousin Spider (real name: Fong), leader of a gang of gun-toting Hmong punks who seem to spend all their time rolling through the neighborhood crammed into Spider’s little white compact. When Thao tries to tell his angry cousin and the gang to take a hike, they attack. Walt, who always has his trusty M1 rifle close at hand, breaks up the fight once it spills onto his property. Holding the rifle on one of Spider’s gang, he growls, “We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea. We used you for sandbags.” Grateful for Walt’s help, and ashamed at Thao’s attempt to steal the car, Thao’s family sends him over to work for Walt, to make up for his dishonor. Walt isn’t happy about this, but Sue, Thao’s older sister and Walt’s guide to Hmong culture, tells him it would be extremely disrespectful not to put Thao to work.
Reluctant at first — he tells Thao, “Unlike you, I am not useless, and maintain my own property” — Walt eventually finds plenty for Thao to do, putting him to work fixing up the abandoned house across the street that’s been an eyesore for three years, then lending him out to the rest of the mostly Hmong neighborhood for repairs and odd jobs. Before too long, Walt is attending parties at the Vang Lor home, and having them over to his place for a barbecue. All of this carries a great deal of meaning because for most of the film Walt has been all by himself.
This is Eastwood the actor and Eastwood the director at work. For most of Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski is an isolated character, a man alone not unlike the characters Eastwood played in the classic westerns he made with Sergio Leone in the 1960s. His wife is dead, he has no meaningful relationship with his surviving family, and though like many old vets his age he seems to know a lot of people, he has no close friends. Even the war in which he fought reinforces his isolation — not Vietnam, the conflict that still haunts our culture almost forty years after its conclusion, but Korea, the forgotten war. Mrs. Kowalski must have noticed this, too, because she made the young priest at her Catholic church promise to look after Walt and convince him to go to confession.
Like Million Dollar Baby a few years back, director Eastwood fills Gran Torino with religious, particularly Catholic, imagery. Important scenes at the beginning and end of the film are staged in the church, and there is also a beautifully shot sequence depicting Walt’s confessions — two of them, one right after the other: the first superficial and incomplete, to the priest; the second, for real, to Thao, with the two of them separated by a screen door that mimics the barrier between confessor and priest in the confessional. Even after all these decades, Walt is troubled by his war experience. “It’s not the things he was ordered to do that haunt a man,” he tells the priest and, later, in greater detail, Thao, “it’s the things he wasn’t ordered to do.”
Eastwood is so good here as an actor and a director that it’s a shame Gran Torino doesn’t come out a better movie. Not that it’s bad — Eastwood carries it off for the most part, and there are some really effective moments. There are also plenty of flaws, mostly in the script and the other performances.
The biggest problem I had scriptwise was with the characters of Spider and his gang. They are drawn so one-dimensionally, and are such contemptible little punks that it’s almost too easy. Sure, Walt is a grumpy old bigot in a world that’s left him behind, but how are you not going to take his side against these guys? I’ve seen movies with Nazis more likeable than Spider and his crew. I know they are the villains of the piece, and I know I’m not supposed to sympathize with them, but it’s laid on so thick I would not have been the least bit surprised had the film cut-in on Spider or one of his boys gleefully raping a nun with a crucifix. These are some evil little fuckers, I’m telling you.
There’s also the overall structure of the story. Roger Ebert would call this classical screenwriting — in fact, he used that very term to describe Million Dollar Baby a few years ago. There it worked better; here it makes too many things, too many of what should be interesting little moments of character, feel obviously telegraphed. Walt’s priest is constantly nagging him about confession — is there any doubt we’re going to see him in that confessional at some point? Thao makes sure to notice Walt’s cigarette lighter, which he’s carried since 1951 and bears the emblem of his old Army unit — are we supposed to be surprised at its Chekhovian reappearance in an ever-so-fucking-significant shot late in the movie? In the hands of a lesser filmmaker than Clint Eastwood, I don’t think any of this would play well at all.
I also had a big problem with the priest. Having only seen the film once, I’m not sure if this is because of the actor (Chris Carley, getting his big break here after a lot of guest work on television) or the way the character is written. The guy is just so earnest, so concerned about the people in his flock that it gets hard to swallow. He practically stalks Walt, showing up at his house and then at his local bar to harangue him into coming to church. He works with the local gangs and is quick to the scene when trouble starts between Thao and Spider. When things threaten to turn violent near the end, he even plants himself outside Spider’s house and has to be practically dragged from the scene by police, protesting all the way that “blood will be shed here tonight” if the cops don’t stick around. It’s satisfying when Walt tells the priest to his face that he thinks of him as “a 27-year-old virgin who holds the hands of scared old ladies, promising them eternity,” and more satisfying yet when he offers him only half-assed regrets about long-ago infidelity and being a bad father, and saves his true confession for Thao.
Clint Eastwood has said this will be his final acting role, and maybe for that reason more than any of its artistic merits, I want to like it. Eastwood has never won an Academy Award for acting; a win here would be deserved, and long overdue. Walt Kowalski has pieces of Harry Callahan, and Josey Wales, and William Munny. He’s a loner, an outcast, a man who takes easily to violence. And like other great Eastwood characters, he’s a man on a journey, grappling with himself and his attitudes and his morality. Walt has reached the end of his journey by the conclusion of Gran Torino, and if it really is the end of Eastwood the actor as well, it’s a fitting, though imperfect, culmination of one of the greatest on-screen careers in the history of the movies.