Clint Eastwood directed, produced and starred in the 2008 film, Gran Torino. There’s much to say about this oxymoron of a character: scarred and sweet, rude and noble, cantankerous and romantic all wrapped up into a celluloid package and delivered by the scruffy, inaudible Clint Eastwood. It’s ranked high at #95 on the IMDB 250 film countdown. Should it be?
Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski
This was a film that had my heart and my head fighting each other. Any plot with a dynamic character is preferable than a static one. Clint acted as an old ‘Dirty Harry’ with too many snarls and one-liners; I thought the script by Nick Schenk was a choppy mix of horrible, mediocre, and small beams of brilliant. Walt Kowalski I could relate to. I grew up listening to veterans of the Korean war talking like Walt Kowalski. Men back then were supposed to be hard, unsympathetic. You better know how to chase a skirt, drink beer, swing a hammer, and shed no tear. That generation kept their yards immaculate, took care of everything they owned and threw nothing away. They would die for their family and country. Racial tags and slurs were common growing up as a kid. Political Correctness hadn’t been suggested yet. Another way to put it, Walt Kowalski was Archie Bunker, and Archie was as common as apple pie, lemonade, and the American flag. Experiencing this, I didn’t have a problem with Walt Kowalski in the film. Clint Eastwood has played the same character for fifty years, so I wasn’t surprised he was, again, the hard shell with the soft middle.
Walt reluctantly mentors Thao, who he nicknames Toad. Thao is played by actor Bee Vang. It was his first acting job, and you could tell. Unfortunately, Bee Vang was one of the worst actors in the cast along with the neophyte priest, Father Janovich. Anytime they conversed with Clint Eastwood, it was painful to watch. The script was terrible and their acting wooden and unbelievable. There was very little chemistry between Eastwood and the actors in the film except the bright spot, Sue, played by Ahney Her.
Ahney Her had a great role in Sue. Her lame boyfriend, appearing briefly as pretty-boy Trey, was played by Clint’s son, Scott Eastwood. Another family member contributed to Eastwood’s film, Kyle Eastwood, who wrote the score. But back to Ahney. She delivered her lines with grace and energy which was sorely lacking in the other performances. Sue was the interpreter, the feminist, the “smart” Asian female who intercedes and befriends Walt Kowalski. It is only after she is attacked that the film becomes interesting. While Walt hacks up blood, the ending is clear, but the climax is nicely done.
While it sounds like I disliked the film, I cried at the end, and still love the film despite its flaws. Perhaps because I understood what Clint Eastwood was trying to do. Here was a film about the effect of the horrors of war. Walt Kowalski lived with the guilt of killing Korean soldiers. It haunted and jaded his entire life. Here, now, was Thao, who was Walt’s redemption. By sacrificing his life for Thao, he was able to come to peace with his past and give a life to Thao who would be free of the gang preditors. By vindicating Sue’s attack, Walt in one move saves the neighborhood, the family, and Thao and Sue. The irony in the film is wonderful. Walt Kowalski becomes more comfortable with the customs and food of the Hmong than his own family. Walt had failed as a father to his two sons, unable to have a positive relationship with them or affirming their manhood. With Thao, Walt is able to teach him how to be a man (albeit in an old-school way) by teaching him how to repair, garden, build, and care for possessions. That’s what real men do. They care for their families and protect them.
For those reasons, the audience discovers they look beyond the gruff exterior of Walt and see the loyal, loving man at the same time Walt Kowalski looks beyond the Asian stereotype and sees his Hmong neighbors as people with similar values as his own. While the traditions and customs displayed in the film might be inaccurate at times, the purpose behind the film is why Gran Torino is ranked pretty high. Clint Eastwood attempts to reveal Universal Truths in his films, and I appreciate that.
Oh, also the sweet, green 1972 Gran Torino. I want one of those!