Friday, November 19, 2010

GRAN TORINO (2008): Clint Eastwood as the Angry White Man

In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood is in many ways playing Dirty Harry as an old man now plagued with doubts.  Yet the lead character played by Eastwood, Walt Kowalski, is undoubtedly the most soft-hearted racist one would ever meet.  It doesn’t take all that much to turn him from a bigot of more than seventy years into someone that has more fondness for his Hmong neighbors than he does for his own family.  Granted, he doesn’t have much affection for his own family to begin with, and his new found tenderness towards the Asian boy and girl next door is not always expressed appropriately.  Yet what Walt perceives of his neighbors is more in keeping with his own idea of family values than anything he was able to enforce upon his own offspring.
The film begins with Walt attending the funeral of his wife, probably the only person for which he had any respect.  Everything at the funeral displeases him from the way his grandchildren are dressed to the way the priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) conducts the service.  His steely stare and his growls intimidate everyone including his sons Mitch (Brian Haley) and Steve (Brian Howe).  It is somewhat understandable why he doesn’t get along with his family because they seldom communicate with Walt without also expecting a favor in return.  Anyway, after the funeral is over, Walt is content to get rid of his family and drink beer and smoke cigarettes on the front porch with his dog Daisy lying beside him.  Father Janovich unsuccessfully tries to converse with Walt.  (Walt remarks to the priest that he is a 27-year old virgin with barely enough vigor to hold the hand of some old lady.)  So, left all to himself, Walt broods about the deterioration of his urban neighborhood that he blames on the influx of minorities moving in.
An isolated incident changes Walt’s life.  The neighbor Hmong boy, Thao (Bee Vang), as a part of a gang initiation, attempts to steel Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino.  This was the same vehicle that Walt had worked on himself some thirty-five years before while working at the Ford plant in Detroit.  Walt, a Korean War veteran with a penchant for guns, catches the boy in the act, points his rifle at neighbor boy and chases him away.  A few days later, when Walt witnesses the Asian gang attempting to drag Thao away so that the boy could conduct another errand for them, Walt intervenes by pointing his rifle at several members of the gang.  The gang, of course, is not pleased.  Thao’s family is so grateful to Walt that they begin delivering him food and plants, and Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), invites Walt over for a party at their house.  Sue, an intelligent and spirited eighteen year old girl, convinces Walt to meet all of the members of her family, and also expresses to Walt her concern for her younger brother.  At her behest, Walt puts Thao to work at a number of tasks and in essence becomes the mentor that he badly needs.  Thao and Sue’s father had also recently died.  As Sue explains to Walt, many of the Hmong girls grow up to attend college while many of the boys are killed or end up in jail.  Though Walt is only able to show it in the crudest of words and gestures, he comes to adore the two Hmong teenagers as much as any caring father.
Unfortunately, the Asian gang will not leave the Hmong family alone.  After one of the gang members burns Thao’s face with a cigarette, Walt tracks down the offending member and beats him up.  But instead of scaring the gang members off, the gang members instead take their revenge by strafing the Hmong family’s home with machine gun fire and assaulting and raping Sue.  Thao wants to take violent revenge upon the gang and asks Walt to assist.  Walt instead locks Thao in the basement, and then, by himself and without a gun, travels over to where the gang is located and deliberately provokes the gang into gunning him down.  Thus, all the gang members are arrested as accessories to murder.   In his will, Walt leaves Thao his most prized possession – the 1972 Gran Torino.
Though we are allegedly supposed to have been taken surprise by the way this movie ends, the movie’s storyline was predictable.  Eastwood as a director has habitually tried too hard to force his movies to go in unexpected directions and this has resulted in a contrived rather than an astonishing storyline.  Eastwood is not the complex moralist that he sometimes pretends to be.  Even so, the movie is not a bad one.  I don’t think that many more talented actors could have projected the kind of screen presence required to turn Walt into an arresting type of character like Clint Eastwood was able to do.  Most other individuals, including movie actors, have faces that say little.  Clint Eastwood, at the age of 78 and with a lined face, looks the part of someone that could rough up much younger men.   Yet he also looks like the curmudgeon whose heart could easily be melted by genuine people making a fuss over him.  For all his tough talk, Walt really cannot say no to the two teenagers who so desperately want to be dignified individuals in the face of pressures from others.  I think Walt’s conversion came about a bit too easily, but the personalities of the brother and sister are so engagingly brought about that Walt’s change of demeanor in regards to them does not surpass believability.
Outside of that of the three main leads, most of the rest of the acting in the movie is not memorable.   Someone older and perhaps a bit more ragged looking than Father Janovich would have been preferable.  Father Janovich’s naïve face and manner warrants Walt’s contempt, and I don’t think Walt would ever truly have respected him even in the end.  Most of Walt’s friends at the bar and at the barbershop are types that are almost cardboard.  The gang members are stereotypical villains, though I’m not going to give most gang members any credit for complexity or brains.  Thankfully, the family members of Thao and Sue (especially their grandmother played by Chee Thao) are delightful and sympathetically played.
Of course the movie is all about race relations.  Realistically portraying such a storyline on the screen is a rarity, and I don’t think Eastwood succeeds at projecting such a theme either.  As politically incorrect as many may deem it to be, the dialogue did not shock the audience that I saw in attendance at the movie.   I heard audience members laughing at the way Clint Eastwood delivered his lines, and not self-consciously.  From beginning to end of the movie, Walt is portrayed more as a crank with a great many redeeming attributes than one truly ashamed of what he has ever done or said.  Even in his confession to the priest – the only confession he had ever made – he only mentions three items, and none of them concern race.  We are to understand that most of the racial slurs he makes in the barbershop or neighborhood saloon were made either because of a lack of understanding or said in a humorous vein than were said with the true intent of injuring anyone.  Unfortunately, these are not the characteristics of most racist individuals, and Walt’s conversion in this movie is certainly not representative of the possibilities of eliminating racism as a whole.
Still, if one makes the inane assumption that the Oscar for Best Picture will actually be awarded to a movie of merit, Gran Torino is more deserving of the award than was Crash that was selected as “Best Picture” in 2004.  Crash portrayed about a dozen different people confronting the consequences of their own racist acts and feelings, yet we never get to know any single character deeply.  Whether or not he is typical of those that harbor racist feelings, we do get to know Walt very well in Gran Torino.  We don’t know anything about his childhood.  We do discover that he was in the Korean War and had to kill a number of enemy soldiers.  We do know that he worked in an auto assembly plant that manufactured American cars that over time have been replaced by ones made in Japan.  We know that he lived in a mostly white neighborhood for more than fifty years that was increasingly becoming run down and taken over by minorities in the Detroit area.  We deduce that Walt probably is dying of cancer.  We also know that he associated mostly with people that harbored the same kind of ideas that he did.  But what we get to know most about Walt is his self-sufficiency and his fiercely independent personality.  Fiercely independent people are frequently, and not always unfairly, characterized as anti-social individuals.  Yet independence in personality can also mean these same individuals are independent in thought and thus more likely to oppose what they perceive as an injustice. Walt was the kind of person that would not become prey to gangs or join organizations that he does not believe in.  It’s those that unreservedly join gangs, organizations, political parties, bureaucracies, or ideologies that are much more likely to become monsters and have no change of heart whatsoever.
Gran Torino is not a great movie.  It’s an old fashioned movie as symbolized by the car for which it is named.  The lead character is also a throwback.  Yet with the amount of mediocre films that are all we see in the mainstream theatres, Gran Torino is about a good of a film as we can expect to be released from any major studio.

January 15, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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