Clint Eastwood is a consistently busy actor and filmmaker, one of the best ever. His current directorial effort is a moving portrayal of a mother in search of her son in the historical drama/police thriller The Changeling. It is sure to garner some awards.
Now here comes Gran Torino, in which Eastwood stars and directs. (Is he the best actor-director or director-actor ever? Maybe…)
In this new film Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grumpy Korean War vet. He is a widower who is alienated from his family and prefers his front porch, beer, dog, guns and his old Gran Torino.
His neighborhood is rapidly changing; a family of Hmong move in next door (Hmong are a southeast Asian ethnic group; the people in Laos helped the US during the Vietnam war as the family explains to Walt).
Some Asian gang members try to get the son, Thao (Bee Vang), to join them. He resists and things get ugly. Walt helps the family during a gang assault and they practically want to adopt him. He resists, just as he resists the efforts of his parish priest, Fr. Janovich (Christopher Carley) to go to confession – his wife’s dying request.
When he catches Thao trying to steal his Gran Torino, Walt begins to train him to be a man though he really wants to ring his neck. As grouchy and racist as he is, Walt begins to change and you can feel his affection and concern for the family next door growing. He cannot resist their love and goodness. And we start to like Walt, too. There is much kindness in this film.
Things heat up. The gang becomes more aggressive, angry at being dissed and humiliated by Walt. When Thao and his sister are gravely assaulted, Walt realizes he can do something. What was a film dotted with vintage Eastwood, becomes deadly serious. All this time the priest has become suspicious that Walt is up to something, something really big with moral implications. Walt’s son and daughter-in-law covet his house and car and badger him to move into a retirement home. His health isn’t that great.
Walt figures the only way he can save his neighbors is to make sure the gang members are no longer a threat. So he goes to their hangout and stands there, unarmed. When he reaches for a lighter, they think he is drawing a gun and open fire and kill him. They are all arrested and the family next door is safe to live the American dream.
Like Seven Pounds, this is a film about dying so others may live. In Seven Pounds, the Will Smith character Ben Thomas kills himself. In Gran Torino, the Eastwood character deliberately goes to the gang’s house to draw their fire. Is there a difference here?
I did not like Seven Pounds at all. I think what disturbed me most of all is that Ben acted out of so much guilt and he was so misguided. In Gran Torino, it is like being in a Western. How much of my interpretation of the film rests with American mythology? Enough that I can accept suicide by gang so that others may live? Did he choose to do this because he was a patriot, a decent human being, or because he was getting old anyway? Is he a hero, an anti-hero? Was he a guerrilla soldier in a urban war? The cops wouldn’t stick around, even though the priest begged them to, so the shootout happened beyond the limits of civil and religious “law” .
These two films have much in common from the perspective of the morality of life & death issues, but I want to give Gran Torino a pass; it made me feel good. I enjoyed it. Loved the song that Eastwood sings at the end… kind of sad, though, and maybe the lyrics were a little fatalistic from what I recall. (Need to hear it again.)
Both Seven Pounds and Gran Torino beg to become part of an ethics/morality course; they beg to become part of sermons and homilies. If we don’t talk about these films and question them in the public sphere, they blend into popular consciousness and conscience and what is wrong becomes right.
Did Walt do a good thing? And Ben Thomas in Seven Pounds? I believe they thought they were doing good things. But the ends never justifies the means. So, now what? What if they have never realized this in a postmodern world?
It’s one thing to throw oneself in front of a car to push a person out of harm’s way; the intent was not to die but to save the person. Here, both of these characters knew they were going to die.; one deliberately kills himself and the other lets gang members do it. Were they throwing themselves under a bus to save others?
Or were they playing God? Certainly Smith’s Ben Thomas was. It is less clear to me about Walt.
So many questions, so little time.
(I am also intrigued by the Catholic voice through a priest that appears in Eastwood’s films such as Million Dollar Baby. The priests say the right things, but Eastwood walks away. He chooses….)