Gran Torino

gran-torino1

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.

-spoiler alert-

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….)

5 Comments

  1. This movie was a horrible dogpile of stereotypes and hidden racism that only flatters viewers and reinforces an insanely superficial cultural myth of American idealism. In the past, I’ve liked Clint’s movies, but this one was vile from so many different angles, I seriously urge others not to see it. Not “boycott”–just do not see this movie. Even from a moderate standpoint it is a pointless piece of junk with a meaningless, self-destructive conclusion. Even worse than the movie itself is everyone pretentiously trying to find meaning in it. Save your money.

  2. Clint Eastwood did a great job of using his outward crankiness to come across as mean as well as somehow heroic this newest film of his

  3. Thanks for your post.
    You know, I don’t think it is pretentious to try and find meaning; I think it is our responsibility to ask what a movie means (or other media.)
    It seems that Gran Torinio irritated you as much as The Curious Case of benjamin Button irritated me. I don’t usually advise that people go to see or not see a film, they can usually grasp it from my tone. But BB … that’s one in which I could not find anything meaningful for me other than to consider it a 3 hour cinematic poem and you know, that’s a long time for a poem!
    Blessings
    R

  4. In response to the first comment made by Jesse, sure there were plenty of racist comments and sterotypes throughout the film. But why not see it? Aren’t there plenty of racist people still around today who live like Walt did? Who put down and throw around racist comments left and right? I’m not advocating it, I just believe it is a reality, and not seeing a film because it contains racist remarks won’t change a thing about the world we live… but seeing it might open our eyes and give us a glimpse into the hearts, minds and souls of those who are consumed with such hatred. Because people who live like that are human, and when it comes down to it, aren’t all humans capable of good and evil? Of course.

    The real message for me is that Walt is a good man. But he is also haunted. He is not close with his sons, something that clearly bothers him – we learn this from his confession near the end of the movie. He is haunted by those he killed in the Korean war. Sure he uses racist remarks to refer to those he killed (gooks, I believe?), but once we approach the end of the movie those remarks are just a mask to hide his pain for what he did. When he locks Thao in the basement.. he says that he is “soiled”, that he has blood on his hands already… that Thao has the entire world ahead of him to be a good man, and he refuses to let Thao become like him (a murderer).

    We hear about the Korean war all throughout the movie, and I believe if you are really paying attention, it is the lives he took during this war that have haunted him his entire life. I believe the reason he goes to the gangsters house is an act of redemption. It is a sacrifice, a gesture to save those he can, and to pay for killing those he killed in the korean war.

    If Walt was truly a hateful racist, he never would have rescued Sue, or taken Thao under his wing. I believe with Thao he was exercising his fatherly nature in a way he never could with his own sons. Also, when Sue is attacked, Walt is deeply affected. He truly cared about his neighbors, despite his inital rough, racisit exterior. The fact is he is human, and deeply haunted, But as the audience of the movie, we get to see him come to life, and we get to see the good in him as he befriends his neighbors and cares for Thao especially. We get to see the real person underneath all the pain that manifests itself by his unfriendly personality (in the beginning).

    Walt was also dying. I don’t see his death a a suicide. LIke I said, I see it as an act of redemption.. his final confession… “hail mary full of grace”… his life was ending and he chose to put himself in front of the firing squad so that Thao and his family might stand a chance for a better future. And to pay for his sins earlier in life….

    So thats what I think. I liked it a lot.

  5. If my hasty denunciation of the movie increased the personal meaning which you discovered in it in any way, then that is probably far more meaningful, I’d say. I reserve whatever surly discomforts I may possess, by my thirty-sixth amendment; but that doesn’t detract a single ounce from the fact that all art means well, nor from the fact that that is an excellent and passionate response.


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