Gran Torino

I’ve always hoped that Clint Eastwood would make one last Dirty Harry film. To my mind this film would do for his cop movies what Unforgiven did for his westerns, provide a more realistic, more human approach to the genre. I’m sure thousands of plots have been pitched to him over the years and the fact that he hasn’t done it probably indicates that he doesn’t want to. Clint Eastwood is in a position to do any film he wants and conversely to not do any film he doesn’t want. We’re not going to get another Dirty Harry film.

Gran Torino is probably as close as we’re going to get to a deconstruction of Inspector Harry Callahan. Walt Kowalski is a decorated Korean War vet and retired auto worker. He lives in a decaying section of Detroit that has mostly been taken over by Hmong tribesmen.  The Hmong are a tribe of Southeast Asian mountain dwellers who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam war and were driven out by the communists after the war ended. Walt, however, only sees them as more Asians, much like the ones he fought in Korea. He distrusts them. Of course he also distrusts his grown sons and the parish priest, played by a baby faced Christopher Carley. The fact that many young male Hmong are involved with gangs doesn’t help matters.

The family next door to Walt has three generations living under one roof. It is run by women, the men being absent and is almost as hidebound in its traditions as Walt. The youngest generation consists of Thao, played by Bee Vang, who is quiet and shy and his sister, Sue Lor, who is outspoken and stands up to gangs in the neighborhood. Thao is under pressure to join a gang. As part of his initiation, he is assigned the task of stealing Walt’s cherry Gran Torino. When Walt catches him at this, Thao’s mother and grandmother insist that the boy atone by helping Walt around the house. Gradually, Walt begins to understand and respect his neighbors.

The comparisons to Dirty Harry are easy to see. Eastwood uses that Harry Callahan squint extensively and purposefully. Walt is not as taciturn as Harry and not as quick to pull a gun, and yet both use guns as solutions to their problems. That resonance could be distracting but Eastwood uses it as a source of much of the film’s humor. When his son is trying to sell him on moving to a retirement home, Eastwood gets a close up on his own face. Squint. Cut to the son and his wife leaving the house, saying, “I can’t believe he threw us out on his birthday.”

The other performances are good too. Christopher Carley, despite looking like he’s twelve years old, is determined to get Walt to come to confession because he promised Walt’s late wife that he would. He persists in the face of Walt’s hostility, thus gaining the old man’s respect and trust. Ahney Her plays Sue with sass and intelligence. And watching Bee Vang’s Thao change from unsure boy to competent man is fun to watch. The rest of Hmong are played by amateur actors and the performances are predictably hit and miss.

The first half of the film is funny, using an un-PC brand of humor where Walt throws around racial epithets in tense situations. It’s kind of like watching a Don Rickles routine. The message, I guess, is that actions and trust are more important than words. I feel somewhat ambiguous about this. There’s a scene where Walt rescues Sue from some black gangbangers. At the beginning of the confrontation, he calls them a racial slur, not the worst one, but bad enough. The tactic makes the gangbangers focus on Walt, almost forgetting about Sue. It also got a laugh and felt somehow liberating. Are there situations where you can use racist language to prevent something worse? A license to hate. Trading insults with friends you’ve known for years is one thing; this is another. I didn’t like being put into a position where I was rooting for that.

That situation aside, Walt’s actions in the end belie what comes out of his mouth. I won’t say anything else lest I ruin the ending for you. Perhaps comparing this movie to Dirty Harry misses the point. Dirty Harry didn’t care what color the people he was shooting were. I don’t recall those films ever dealing with racism. Gran Torino is about racism. The more apt comparison might be with The Searchers, John Wayne’s character study of an unyeidling racist who does the right thing at the end.


6 Responses to “Gran Torino”

  1. 1 Jesse January 10, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    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. Save your money.

  2. 2 coffee January 15, 2009 at 6:53 am

    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. 3 J.B. July 7, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I completely disagree with the point of view expressed by Jesse. The movie seemed true to its characters and not promoting anything other than people are not what they seem. The baby faced priest is a tough minded and persevering padre when provoked. The quiet Hmong kid next door is a failed car thief and the kind of kid who will help an old lady pick up her spilled groceries for no reward. And the old mean sour tongued Dirty Harry like Korean War veteran widower next door can have his heart of stone melted when he feels genuine respect and admiration for his “old-fashioned” ideals of protecting the innocent and serving bravely and how he lives them out. Its pretty clear that Eastwood is not celebrating this guy in some naive way as a unmitigated heroic figure. The guy is totally tragic from where he started out. His relationship to the Hmong family next door changes him.. He has no relationship with his sons and when he finally does admit his sins – it’s clear that is the big one he can’t pardon himself for. He failed as a father with his own flesh. He finds redemption as a patriarch in being a father/protector to the Hmong boy and girl next door. It may not be “realistic” (this is a work of fiction) but it is made plausible and moving by the performances and their authenticity to the character’s and their own natural voicing.

  4. 4 Lou January 23, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I agree with Jesse. This movie is a collection of characters from central casting with very little meat in the script. It seems it was dashed off in a weekend and filmed in two weeks. I am surprised at respected national movie critics commenting on the strength of Eastwood’s characterization. It was just a re-hash of Dirty Harry’s squints and grunts, but in retirement. Perhaps it was not a good time for him to be doing this film, but at times I expected him to fall over or hurt himself badly on the balsa wood cabinets. Hey, I can be a fun of Hollywood schlock, but this was somewhere in the uncommitted hazy middle. The title is a bit vague: “Gran Torino”. Is it supposed to evoke the lost American Dream or some kind of honest goal in our culture?

    This film either needed to be more sentimental or more action-oriented to make its point.

  5. 5 Sriram February 1, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    The point of the film was pretty obvious – we’re stuck here, on earth together. It is not a heavy message picture – though the message is so clear that it needs little prodding. Also, the movie is NOT realistic, but it sends enough signals in its spareness and the nakedness of the racial slurs that it should not be taken realistically. (I doubt the convo between Clint and his barber would be like that in real life)

  6. 6 jhn April 3, 2010 at 3:58 am

    Dude, if you think this film was about racism, you missed the proverbial forest for the trees. Racism was simply the salt on a much bigger plate of food. You should re-watch the film.

    This was a very good film.

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