Gran Torino Movie Analysis Essay
I would like to grow up to be like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood the director, Eastwood the actor, Eastwood the invincible, Eastwood the old man. What other figure in the history of the cinema has been an actor for 53 years, a director for 37, won two Oscars for direction, two more for best picture, plus the Thalberg Award, and at 78 can direct himself in his own film and look meaner than hell? None, that's how many.
"Gran Torino" stars Eastwood as an American icon once again -- this time as a cantankerous, racist, beer-chugging retired Detroit autoworker who keeps his shotgun ready to lock and load. Dirty Harry on a pension, we're thinking, until we realize that only the autoworker retired; Dirty Harry is still on the job. Eastwood plays the character as a man bursting with energy, most of which he uses to hold himself in. Each word, each scowl, seems to have broken loose from a deep place.
Walt Kowalski calls the Asian family next door "gooks" and "chinks" and so many other names he must have made it a study. How does he think this sounds? When he gets to know Thao, the teenage Hmong who lives next door, he takes him down to his barber for a lesson in how Americans talk. He and the barber call each other a Polack and a dago and so on, and Thao is supposed to get the spirit. I found this scene far from realistic and wondered what Walt was trying to teach Thao. Then it occurred to me Walt didn't know it wasn't realistic.
Walt is not so much a racist as a security guard, protecting his own security. He sits on his porch defending the theory that your right to walk through this world ends when your toe touches his lawn. Walt's wife has just died (I would have loved to meet her,) and his sons have learned once again that the old bastard wants them to stay the hell out of his business. In his eyes, they're overweight meddlers working at meaningless jobs, and his granddaughter is a self-centered greed machine.
Walt sits on his porch all day long, when he's not doing house repairs or working on his prized 1972 Gran Torino, a car he helped assemble on the Ford assembly line. He sees a lot. He sees a carload of Hmong gangstas trying to enlist the quiet, studious Thao into their thuggery. When they threaten Thao to make him try to steal the Gran Torino, Walt catches him red-handed and would just as soon shoot him as not. Then Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her, likable and sensible) comes over to apologize for her family and offer Thao's services for odd jobs, Walt accepts only reluctantly. When Sue is threatened by some black bullies, Walt's eyes narrow and he growls and gets involved because it is his nature.
What with one thing and another, his life becomes strangely linked with these people, although Sue has to explain that the Hmong are mountain people from Laos who were U.S. allies and found it advisable to leave their homeland. When she drags him over to join a family gathering, Walt casually calls them all "gooks" and Sue a "dragon lady," they seem like awfully good sports about it, although a lot of them may not speak English. Walt seems unaware that his role is to embrace their common humanity, although he likes it when they stuff him with great-tasting Hmong food and flatter him.
Among actors of Eastwood's generation, James Garner might have been able to play this role, but my guess is, he'd be too nice in it. Eastwood doesn't play nice. Walt makes no apologies for who he is, and that's why, when he begins to decide he likes his neighbors better than his own family, it means something. "Gran Torino" isn't a liberal parable. It's more like, out of the frying pan and into the melting pot. Along the way, he fends off the sincere but very young parish priest (a persuasive Christopher Carley), who is only carrying out the deathbed wishes of the late Mrs. Kowalski. Walt is a nominal Catholic. Hardly even nominal.
"Gran Torino" is about two things, I believe. It's about the belated flowering of a man's better nature. And it's about Americans of different races growing more open to one another in the new century. This doesn't involve some kind of grand transformation. It involves starting to see the "gooks" next door as people you love. And it helps if you live in the kind of neighborhood where they are next door.
If the climax seems too generic and pre-programmed, with too much happening fairly quickly, I like that better than if it just dribbled off into sweetness. So would Walt.
The Ford Gran Torino earned its footnote in pop culture history when a ketchup-red 75 model with a white racing stripe was featured every week in the TV cop show Starsky and Hutch. The model shown here is an earlier vintage, 1972, and its owner's glory days would appear to be from around the same era. This is widower, retired car worker, military veteran and seething American patriot Walt Kowalski, played with grandstanding gusto and unfakable star quality by Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood also directs and produces.) Walt bought one of the Gran Torinos that he helped to manufacture - "right off the line" - but keeps it in pristine condition in the garage, while he rumbles around town in an old Ford pickup, glowering at foreign automobiles and their disloyal American owners.
We join the story as the ageing Walt has just lost his wife and, at the funeral, has to endure the supercilious homilies of a young priest (whose religion he tolerated for his late wife's sake) along with the insolence and lack of respect displayed by his smug grownup sons, both foreign-car owners, and their unspeakable teenage children. The neighbourhood has gone all to hell, too. The house next door is now owned by a Hmong family - a widespread South-east Asian minority - and Walt does not trouble to distinguish them from the Koreans he fought in the 1950s, of whom, we are later to learn, he despatched at least 13.
Walt is a racist; he is a resenter of the spooks, gooks and mooks, mentally lumped in with all the local criminals and gangbangers around town who are undermining decent values. The political becomes personal when Thao (Bee Vang), a shy, bookish teenage boy who lives next door to Walt is bullied by his thuggish cousin and no-good buddies into joining their gang. His initiation test is to bust into Walt's garage and steal his treasured Gran Torino. Sure enough, Thao's incompetent nocturnal raid triggers Walt's halogen security lights and Walt comes running with the M1 assault rifle he keeps cleaned and ready - keen to bring his score up to 14. The meeting of Walt and Thao is to change both their lives.
Eastwood's performance as Walt is a treat. No one could have animated the role like this and no one else could conceivably have got away with the racist tirades, reactionary arias and bigoted broadsides. He gets away with it because we know full well that he is eventually going to reveal that great big bruised and hurting heart-of-gold hidden under the faded grey T-shirt. Eastwood, at the age of 78, can carry off the essentially comic combination of elderly mannerisms and cowboy menace. He has his belt hitched up high like an old geezer and his short-sleeved shirt reveals his wrinkly elbows, and his long senior-citizen forearms. Yet there is something potent about his narrow-eyed gaze of righteous loathing, a facial tic perhaps learned originally by leaning into a telescopic gunsight; it's a crinkling of the eye muscles that also brings the corners of his mouth out into a silent snarl. When relaxed, and even smiling, his face resembles the one shown on his creased wedding photo: the one he had as a boy.
Very often, Walt communicates only in a soft growl, an inchoate version of the whispery-croaky threats and insults that are his stock in trade. There is a bravura moment when Walt rolls past in his pickup, just as black guys are threatening Thao's smart, feisty cousin Sue (Ahney Her), while she is out walking with a local white boy who ingratiatingly, and catastrophically, tries to affect gangsta style to placate them. The cranky old grandpa faces them down and even pulls a gun, then subtly establishes his psychological mastery of the situation by making it clear he shares the blacks' contempt for Sue's creepy pseudo-urban date: "They're not your 'bro', and I don't blame them!"
The politics of racial insult become even more complex when Walt takes Thao on a visit to his local barber in order to give him a masterclass in the friendly exchange of insults traditionally performed by this "polack" and "wop". When Thao tries it, the barber is furious and from nowhere produces a pump-action shotgun. The lesson is clear. Knockabout ethnic comedy is OK when it is performed by your white elders and betters.
Like its hero, this movie is a great big sentimental softie under its tough-guy persona. Still very conservative, though. The progressive revelation of this fact in a number of jolting plot transitions is a little tough to take. Finally, Walt makes a confession to this baby-faced priest and lovably admits to once kissing a lady who wasn't his wife and not paying his taxes: no mention of threatening people with guns and pistol-whipping a gangster, though. There is also the question of how Walt finally puts away his nasty attitudes to minorities and becomes a better person: I'm not sure I entirely buy this, and the transformation is questionable.
This is still an enjoyably big, brash, macho melodrama, saved from absurdity by Eastwood's cracking performance. It isn't his late masterpiece: I think his Iwo Jima movies fit that bill better. But it is almost certainly Clint Eastwood's final acting appearance: a must-see on that account if nothing else.