Provost's Film Series
September 10, 2009
Introduction written by Joel Nolette, Steve Hunt, and Mark Sargent
Cynicism and Compassion
Gran Torino (2008) appears to be a somewhat stereotypical American story of a racist, elderly misanthrope who, when forced to deal with his prejudices, comes to appreciate those he used to scorn. However, with Clint Eastwood as director and lead actor, Gran Torino delivers much more: a messy but deeply human story about one man's journey toward redemption.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and retired Ford assembly-line worker who recently became a widower. Living in a Michigan suburb experiencing a large influx of Hmong immigrants and having two sons who act as though their father is a burden they have to bear, Walt does his best to live in isolation. Through the persistent efforts of the young parish priest, Father Janovich, and especially Walt’s stubbornly invasive Hmong neighbors, the old man begins to transform during the film from a jaded cynic to a compassionate friend.
The spiritual overtones are established from the outset. Indeed, the first frame is the façade of a church, with cross front and center. As Father Janovich eulogizes Walt’s deceased wife, he discusses the significance of life and death. His sermon, however, which claims that death is bittersweet because eternity offsets the pain humanity feels in this life, is a platitude which Walt cannot help but disdain. Having promised Walt’s deceased wife that he would look out for her husband and gain his long overdue confession, Father Janovich drops in on him from time to time, much to the old veteran’s dismay. Walt has no use for pat answers, especially pat answers delivered by an inexperienced priest fresh out of seminary.
However, as Walt becomes entangled in the lives of his next-door neighbors, he is forced out of his narrow world. Having witnessed firsthand the brutality of death in war and having considered his own horrific part in it for most of his adult life, Walt slowly learns what life can be and challenges Thao, the Hmong teenager next door, to live his life to the fullest.
The film explores many timely themes. In a society with an increasingly elderly population, the cold way in which Walt’s sons treat him (conditioned as they have been by Walt’s own indifference towards them) lays bare the calloused sentiments of children who treat their parents as burdens rather than as people. Father Janovich’s seminary religion is called into question for its useless theologizing, while at the same time the underlying truths of his message are vindicated through his maturing outlook and Walt’s own actions.
Racism is clearly a prominent theme in the film as well: virtually no ethnic group escapes Walt’s never-ending ridicule (and viewers should take note of this fact before seeing the film). Still, while the seemingly strange rituals of the Hmong family are derided by Walt, they are, nevertheless, quietly affirmed for their underlying virtues by the filmmaker. Conceptions of manhood are front and center, too. While Walt seems to present manhood to Thao as consisting of rudeness and cynicism, he demonstrates that being a man entails at the very least loyalty towards those you love and a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them.
The 1972 Gran Torino and Hmong Community
Of course, the film is so named because Walt’s prized possession is his vintage vehicle, which he helped assemble in a Michigan factory. With the current depression in the American auto industry and the Detroit area, the Gran Torino looms not only as an emblem of Walt’s earlier life and importance but also as a symbol of a thriving, profitable American economy and way of life, all of which he perceives as threatened by the rash of “gooks” and immigrants. But Eastwood cleverly uses the car as the ironic device that reverses Walt’s presuppositions. Originally a sticking point between Walt and Thao, the Gran Torino will bring them together and eventually prompt Walt’s magnanimity. It is through their time together that Thao learns to work, to take pride in his accomplishments, and to stand up for himself and his family. Walt, who is alienated from his own children, learns more about what family, life, and love can mean.
Walt’s early misunderstanding of his Hmong neighbors is not uncommon. Quite often, Americans mistake the Hmong for Chinese or Vietnamese, even though most of the older Hmong adults in the U.S. were born and raised in the hilltops of Laos. At present, about 200,000 persons of Hmong descent live in the U.S., primarily in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. During the Vietnam War era, the Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to fight a secret war against the Communists in Laos, and thousands of Hmong people lost their lives. But with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the Hmong were left vulnerable to recriminations from the Laos government, which was something of a puppet for the Communist regime of Vietnam. The Hmong were quickly marked for genocidal extinction; thousands died from “yellow rain,” or chemical weapons. Thousands fled into abysmal conditions in Thailand refugee camps, while some managed to flee eventually to the U.S., where they struggled to find work. Many Hmong felt betrayed by the U.S. after the Vietnam War, and that sense of betrayal is not that far removed from Walt’s own feeling that the nation no longer fully appreciates the war veterans who fought against the Communists in Korea. In the end, Walt and Thao have far more in common than they could have imagined.
Although Eastwood did not write the screenplay, most all film critics and Eastwood fans have considered how Gran Torino fits into the arc of the 78-year-old actor’s long career. It is indeed tempting to see Walt as an old, retired Dirty Harry, the lone-wolf cop that was Eastwood’s signature role during his early years on screen. That renegade policeman, of course, owes much to the desperados and free-spirited cowboys who took justice into their own hands in the American western—roles that Eastwood played easily and often himself. Yet if Eastwood the actor could play the avenging angel with the best crowd-pleasing snarl, Eastwood the director has always been able to turn a perceptive eye on the American blend of morality and violence. His best films as a director—such as the Boston crime story Mystic River, or his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby—raise haunting questions of the necessity of violence for love and justice.
Similar questions emerge in the controversial ending to Gran Torino. For many reviewers, the ending is a powerful twist in the Eastwood persona. More than a few critics describe the finale as a “valediction” to Dirty Harry, both a vindication and a farewell. Others, such as James Bernadelli, worry that the Eastwood role settles for “self-parody” and defaults to the usual renegade violence, although dressed up with self-justifying Christian imagery. Or can we even contend that the film’s ironic finish and cross-shaped imagery, where Eastwood is redeemed and redeemer, provide a sideways glance at incarnational theology, wherein “one man’s obedience” changes the lives of so many (Romans 5:19)?