“Gran Torino” - Clint Eastwood (2008)

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) was well-received by critics upon its release and seen as a presumable swan song for the then 78-year-old actor/director.   After all, the film seemed to offer a reflective take on some of the characteristic themes in Eastwood’s films: morality, personal justice, and revenge.  And although Eastwood has amazingly gone on to direct nine more films since then, some people would say that Gran Torino still stands as a significant Eastwood statement on the appropriateness of revenge.  In fact some critics felt that Eastwood was finally turning his back on revenge entirely in this film [1].  This was significant, because over the course of forty years, Eastwood had become the iconic face of vengeance – in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Dirty Harry (1971, plus four sequels), and Unforgiven (1992).

Gran Torino, too, includes aspects of vengeance, but it also features some comedic elements and reflections on the decay of traditional American family life.  The question is – does this film show a novel Eastwood renunciation of revenge as a moral instrument?  I would say it does not.

The story of the film, which is scripted by Nick Schenk, is set in a decaying residential neighborhood in Detroit and concerns a retired auto assembly-line worker, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood), who had served in the Korean War (1950-53).  Given those dates, we can guess that the cantankerous Kowalski must now be in his late 70's.  Throughout this story, which comprises five parts, the two themes of retributive justice and family-love redemption keep reappearing.

1.  Two Neighboring Families

The film begins with the traditional Catholic funeral of Walt’s wife, in the attendance of which are the families of Walt’s two grown sons, Mitch and Steve.  Both sons are preoccupied with their own middle-class materialistic concerns and have no interest in and have long since abandoned socializing with their curmudgeonly old father.  As far as they are concerned, Walt should now be shipped off to a rest home.  But Walt wants to stay living in his old house, even though the neighborhood is increasingly rundown and now overrun by new Hmong refugee families from Southeast Asia.  The Hmong people are very family-oriented, just the opposite of the familial-isolated Walt Kowalski.  Walt’s only interests are his dog, his perfectly preserved 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and keeping neighborhood children off his lawn. 

Early on we see Hmong teenager Thao Lor (Bee Vang), who lives next door to Walt, forcibly recruited by his cousin “Spider” (Doua Moua) to join a Hmong street gang.  Thao’s gang initiation assignment is to steal Walt’s Gran Torino.  But Thao bungles the attempt, and Walt almost shoots him with his rifle.

2.  Getting to Know Walt and the Lors
In this part we get know a little more about Walt and the Lors.  Shortly after the botched Gran Torino theft incident, Spider’s Hmong gang starts to punish Thao by roughing him up on the street, but Walt intervenes with his rifle and chases the gang members away.  Later a rival black gang threatens to sexually harass another young member of the Lor family, Sue (Ahney Her), but again the gun-wielding Walt comes to the rescue.

The Lor family are extraordinarily grateful for these interventions, and they come over and shower Walt’s front porch with gifts.  They also compel Thao to come to Walt and formally apologize for his earlier wrongdoing.   

However, we see that Walt didn’t do these things out of kindness; he did them out of hatred and contempt for racial minorities.  Walt is a hard-core racist – he repeatedly calls all the people in his neighborhood “chinks”, “slopes”, “slants”, and “gooks” – an attitude that probably goes back to his experiences in the massively deadly Korean War (roughly 3 million Asians killed [2]).  In fact Walt is the kind of ignorant urban redneck (IUR) that today makes up the core support for Donald Trump. 

Nevertheless, Sue manages to coax Walt into coming over to the Lor household for a wider-family luncheon party, where Walt is shown that the Lors are indeed human beings.  Afterwards, the Lor family insist that, as an act of penance, Thao must come over and work for Walt for a full week.

3.  Walt and Thao
Walt reluctantly takes Thao on, and as Thao performs various odd jobs for Walt, they gradually warm up to each other.  In fact Thao gradually becomes something of a new son to Walt, and Walt’s intuitive paternal concern for Thao is increasingly invoked.  This is culminated when Walt gives Thao permission to use his prized Gran Torino to go out on a date that Walt has encouraged for Thao.  It is in this section of the film that the beauties and subtleties of family concern are brought to the fore.

However, when Thao gets roughed-up again by Spider’s gang, Walt angrily goes over to the gang  members’ house and brutally beats one of their members. 

4.  Hmong Gang Retaliation
We now seem to be in something of a gang war, but a decidedly unequal one.  It is Spider’s Hmong gang versus the Lor family “gang”, which has only one warrior – Walt.  That night Spider’s gang drives up to the Lor house and delivers a massive fusillade of bullets through the windows.  Many of the Lor family members are seriously wounded from the attack.  Then Sue, who had been out at this time, staggers home after having been viciously raped and beaten by the gang members. 

When Walt learns what happened, he is consumed with hatred.  Young Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who had presided over the funeral of Walt’s wife and who has always earlier been seen advocating forgiveness, comes to visit Walt; but he, too, is filled with anger and doesn’t know what to counsel this time.

So is Eastwood setting up the viewer for another customary vengeance-filled finale?

5.  A Coming to Terms?

The next day Thao comes over to Walt’s house seeking revenge.  For him, Walt is his uncompromising “Exterminating Angel” suitable for the task.  However, Walt puts him off and tells him to come back later that afternoon.  Then Walt calmly goes out to buy a new suit, gets a haircut, and goes to the church to confess his life’s sins to Father Janovich.  Having recently come to feel paternal affection for a young Asian boy, Walt now feels guilt over having long ago killed thirteen young men in the Korean War.  When Thao comes back later, Walt tricks him into getting locked in his basement.  He evidently wants to keep the vengeful boy out of danger. 

That evening Walt goes to the Hmong gang members’ house and stands there in the front lawn loudly berating them, which attracts the attention of many neighboring onlookers.  When he slowly reaches into his inside coat pocket, suggesting to the watching gang members that he is reaching for his gun, they all blast him with a deadly round of bullets.  But Walt was unarmed and was only reaching for his cigarette lighter.  It is clear that he had staged his own heavily-witnessed murder so that he could have the gang members arrested by the quickly arriving police and given lengthy prison sentences.

Later, at the reading of Walt’s last will and testament and with his younger family members eagerly in attendance, it is revealed that he leaves nothing to his family.  He bequeaths his house to the church (i.e. the community) and his beloved Gran Torino to Thao.

A number of reviewers have liked this film, because they view Walt’s final act of sacrifice as heroic [3], and/or they see Walt as ultimately having undergone a transformation suggesting the possibility of a reconciliation between traditionally prejudiced working-class America and non-white immigrant communities [1,4,5].  And the eponymous Ford Gran Torino is a symbol of this sector of American society in need of a more conciliatory outlook.  As Manohla Dargis remarked [4]:
“Made in the 1960s and ’70s, the Gran Torino was never a great symbol of American automotive might, which makes Walt’s love for the car more poignant. It was made by an industry that now barely makes cars, in a city that hardly works, in a country that too often has felt recently as if it can’t do anything right anymore . . .  “
But is it realistic to believe that Walt Kowalski really underwent a transformation fueled by ersatz familial love?  I am in sympathy with critics who question the plausibility of such a reading [5].  To me, Walt is a racist curmudgeon to the very end.  His final action is very much a hate-fueled act of revenge.  Knowing that his future life allotment was limited, Walt chose to carry out the most destructive action he could think of that would inflict the most pain on his collective adversaries through the instrumentality of the punitive system.  This was not an act of heroism or a quest for justice – it was just the maximal possible punishment.

It would have been better for this narrative to have been constructed so that Walt, through his gradual familial relationship with Thao, would develop a more humane way of interacting with all people.  Instead, he relapsed into his own form of self-sacrificing revenge.

So in my opinion, Gran Torino is just another revenge movie, but it lacks the ameliorating narrative elements that are sometimes present in other, more-satisfying Eastwood movies.

  1. John Patterson, “On film: A farewell to vengeance”, The Guardian, (19 December 2008).  
  2. “Casualties”, “Korean War”, Wikipedia, (20 June 2020).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Get off my lawn”, RogerEbert.com, (17 December 2008).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “Hope for a Racist, and Maybe a Country”, The New York Times, (11 December 2008).   
  5. Maryann Johanson, “Gran Torino (review)”, FlickFilosopher, (2 January 2009).   

No comments: