Film Reviews

Gran Torino Clint Eastwood

Rating - 8/10

For a generation of young men, Clint Eastwood defined a rugged, no-frills brand of masculinity. Characters like Dirty Harry and the Dollars trilogy’s Man With No Name reflected a cinematic persona that became iconic: enabling Eastwood to replace John Wayne as the consumate action hero of the era. Times have changed. The intolerant clenched jaw scowl and violent vigilantism Eastwood’s Harry Callahan espoused are no longer acceptable, nor desirable in the twenty-first century. Gran Torino is not a "Dirty Harry" film per se, but the spirit of Eastwood’s famous Magnum-toting character firmly takes residence in its quarters.

Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a bigoted former auto worker, who now spends his days swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon on his porch alongside his yellow Labrador and grunting about his decaying Highland Park neighborhood. Formerly a community centered around blue collar assembly line jobs in the automotive industry, the area has now become a heterogeneous enclave filled with working-class ethnic minorities, whom Walt openly and vehemently resents.

The Hmong people represent one such minority group living in Walt's neighborhood. Comprised of people from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, the Hmong fought against Communist factions during the Vietnam War. In the post-war aftermath, many relocated to Australia, Canada and the United States. But to Walt, despite their pro-American allegiances, the Hmong are no different from the Korean youngsters he fought against over half a century earlier.

Recently widowed, Walt has become alienated from both his spoiled adult sons and his wife’s Catholicism. With little to entrust his faith in, Walt clings onto the past. He maintains his vintage Gran Torino, shares drinks with old buddies and continues to practice an antiquated code of working-class masculinity. Stubborn and ornery, the xenophobic Walt soon finds himself in the unlikely role of an ally with his Hmong neighbors. When a group of local Hmong gangsters try to take the introverted, fatherless Hmong teenager Thao Lor (an awkward Bee Vang) under their wing, Walt steps in to aid the youngster.

As a result, the curmudgeonly Walt soon becomes a local hero within the Hmong community. To complicate matters, Thao’s sweet sister Sue (the instantly likable Anhey Her) offers her brother’s services to Walt, as an apology for the boy’s ill-fated attempt to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino. The budding relationship between Walt and Thao is surprisingly humorous and poignant. Through their friendship, Walt learns understanding, tolerance and acceptance. Slowly, he becomes integrated into the Lor household and begins to realize he shares deeper commonalities with them than he does with his own family.

In contrast to Walt’s selfish grandchildren, Thao is interested in Walt’s past. He does not ask for material goods and wants to repay Walt's trust. Thao is well-mannered, studious, respectful and accepting of Walt’s faults and discretions. Certainly this aspect is one of the film’s more unnerving elements. Although Walt’s blistering arsenal of racial epithets shifts from being a show of hostility to a warped term of endearment, his language and opinions are never questioned by members of the Hmong community like Sue or Thao.

This is somewhat problematic in a film dealing with issues of racism and intolerance in contemporary American society. In many ways, Gran Torino reflects the anti-racist messages of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) or Donovan’s Reef (1963). Paralleling The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, Eastwood’s Walt is an anachronism: a figure filled with bitterness and resentment towards a people, he fails to understand due to his innate prejudices. One of Gran Torino’s great ironies of course is that Walt himself comes from an immigrant background, as do many of his friends such as a barber with Italian heritage and a construction worker with Irish ancestry.

Like Ethan, Walt is a lonely, brooding figure; a relic of the past still practicing a brand of masculinity and a belief system that no longer holds a place in American society. Ethan’s refusal to change left him to roam alone in the desert wilderness. Walt never really completely converts either. His barrage of slurs never does fully dissipate, even though he grows less suspicious toward both the Hmongs and his deceased wife’s babyfaced Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley). The latter figure becomes important in revealing Walt's insights into death and exposing his blustery personal rhetoric. 

When Walt tries to help Thao “man-up” through adopting tough mannerisms and language, we see the humor in his follies. It is an evocation of manliness no longer viable in modern society, a theme echoed in the character of Jimmy Markum in Eastwood's earlier Mystic River. But of course, Walt does not realize this. Thus, just as his mentor Don Siegel in John Wayne's swansong The Shootist (1976) highlighted the demise of the cowboy, Gran Torino seems to suggest the end of an age of violent tough-guys like Harry Callahan, in favour of Thao's contemplative, enlightened masculinity and cultural tolerance. Furthermore, the film emerges as an attempt at exploring the complexities of multiculturalism in America: calling for greater tolerance and appreciation of America's racial and ethnic mosaic.

Gran Torino is not Eastwood’s best film this decade, but it embodies the qualities, themes and craftsmanship which have come to shape his fruitful late period flourish. In contrast to Paul Haggis' Crash (2006) Eastwood's approach never feels overly preachy. At times, there is a nerviness and awkwardness to Gran Torino. But through Eastwood's subtle gaze, the film reaches an equilibrium between criticism and cliché. Unlike Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the latter element does not cause Eastwood's film to unravel into a banal collection of stereotypes. As a result, Gran Torino is an often entertaining slice of social criticism, albeit one which arguably straddles its key subject matter along a very thin line.