English Title: Gran Torino
Country of Origin: USA
Studio: Malpaso Productions, Warner Bros
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Art Director: John Warnke
Runtime: 112 minutes
Volume: American - Hollywood
Following the death of his wife, Korean War veteran and retired auto-worker Walt Kowalski becomes increasingly withdrawn. One of the few remaining white Americans in his Michigan neighbourhood, he rejects overtures of support from the local Catholic priest and dismisses his sons and grandchildren as idle and selfish. Still haunted by his wartime memories, the only genuine affection he expresses is for his dog and his 1972 Gran Torino – a vehicle that he personally helped to assemble on the production line. However, after a failed attempt to steal the cherished car, Walt is compelled to confront the prejudices he feels for the Hmong family living next door. Reluctantly at first, he finds himself increasingly involved in the affairs of his neighbours, befriending young Sue Lor and becoming a role model for Thao, her introverted brother. Walt intervenes in several unpleasant confrontations with local gangs in an attempt to protect Thao’s family. Nevertheless, the situation continues to escalate, culminating in a brutal assault on Sue. Despite Walt’s best efforts, it appears that young Thao is destined for a life of gang violence and crime. But Walt has one final courageous plan to find peace and salvation for Thao and himself.
Despite a campaign that appeared to market Gran Torino almost as a continuation of the Dirty Harry series (the movie’s one-sheet poster depicts a typically grim-faced Eastwood, rifle in hand), with its themes of regret and redemption it would be more appropriate to view the film as a companion piece to Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004). ‘A man’s got to know his limitations’, Harry Callahan mused in Magnum Force (1972). In Gran Torino Eastwood and his character, Walt Kowalski, take this advice to heart. It would have been all too easy to have followed a crowd-pleasing ‘senior citizen vigilante’ route but, instead, Eastwood elects to pursue a more nuanced and reflective approach, returning to the ideas he explored in Unforgiven (1992) and Mystic River (2003), where violence has disturbing and lasting consequences.
The symbolism of the eponymous car is clear. As Eastwood comments in the DVD’s bonus features, ‘Walt sort of is the Gran Torino. He’s worked on them in the factory and he’s as antique as they are’. The car, popularized by the 1970s’ cop show Starsky and Hutch (1975–1979) provides a metaphor for the former and faded glory of American machismo.
Gran Torino acknowledges that times have changed. Dirty Harry’s above-the-law tactics no longer apply. As previously seen in films such as Bronco Billy (1980), Eastwood satirizes his tough-guy persona. The one occasion Walt fires his rifle it is in error, the shot harmlessly ricocheting off his garage walls. Making as if to draw a pistol on troublesome gang members, absurdly he only produces his pointing index finger – a gesture the youths greet with bewilderment. Most tellingly, when Walt finally resorts to violence, viciously beating a member of the gang that is persecuting Thao, he only serves to escalate the bloodshed.
Much has been made of the racist language used by Walt, but it serves as a signifier of an out-of-date masculinity. The slurs doled out to various ethnicities are distinctly squirm-inducing, yet they are emblematic of a character who, as his son observes, ‘still lives in the fifties’. For Walt, trading personal insults is often a displacement for unspoken affection, a coarse social interaction learned in the military and on the factory floor. It even becomes part of a rite of passage as Walt educates Thao in ‘correct usage’.
Eastwood enjoys confounding audience expectations. There is something unsettling and strangely moving watching this symbol of stoic masculinity play the role of a retiree: mowing his lawn, struggling to make small talk with a group of teenagers at a party, or, most disturbingly, being presented with retirement-home brochures by his insensitive family. In film, seniors are usually peripheral characters – figures of fun or wise sages contributing advice from the sidelines. Offering a refreshing variation, here is a sympathetic portrayal of a senior citizen as a fully-realized protagonist.
But if Walt’s character is well-drawn, the depiction of his family is rather one-dimensional. It is difficult to believe that even the most self-centred family would behave so inappropriately at a funeral. However, in an attempt to provide a little depth, Walt does express regret that he was not closer to his sons. There are hints that they have reached out to their father, only to have their offers rejected. Ultimately, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) and Alan Ladd’s protagonist in Shane (1953), the film acknowledges that that the saviour of the civilized community must move on. Perhaps the ways of the Old West may no longer apply, yet the tropes of the Western genre continue to persevere.
Author of this review: John Caro