Gran Torino is a fine film, but it’s as deeply flawed as some of its characters. I can forgive its characters for their foibles, but not its filmmakers.
Clint Eastwood has shown himself to be a great student of the independent pulse of film. His Million Dollar Baby was an achingly touching look at tough mercy and adoptive love. The film won him some awards too.
His latest film, Gran Torino, about a grumpy old man and his awkward relationship with his community, is poised to be another award-winner. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is a Korean War vet staunchly living in 1950s cultural America. He’s angry that the world has changed a lot since then. His neighborhood, where we assume he raised his two estranged boys, has become a low-income block populated mostly by Hmong people 1. The quiet slice of Americana, where he slowly refurbished his house over the decades and hand-built his 1972 Gran Torino as an autoworker at the Ford plant, has become a slum of gangs and racial warfare. As a new homeowner myself, I can sympathize with Walt. I too want my pristine little neighborhood to stay the way it is for as long as I live here.
As you can imagine, there are many negative stereotypes on display in Gran Torino. Walt is most definitely a racist, though Eastwood’s timeless charm magically wins us over. Racial slurs from his mouth somehow sting less. Perhaps it’s his age — he’s never seemed this old in a film before. Walt’s movements and guttural grunting (though not his manner of speech!) reminded me of my own grandfather. Maybe it’s with the very old that we lend more grace when it comes to social faux pas? That’s not a very good defense of intolerance, but it might be the case.
In addition to the racism, there is a lot of misogyny and sexism on display in both the young and old. Walt and his Italian barber friend bemoan their “old ladies,” while his young Hmong neighbors deride their youngest son Thao for doing “women’s work.” The various gangs are perhaps the worst. For them, women are mere property.
Both of these deep social flaws — misogyny and racism — can be overlooked to an extent in a film like this. Neither is celebrated or rewarded in any of their characters. The racist behavior of Walt eventually subsides as he discovers his neighbors are hard-working, earnest, and deeply giving people. They are worlds away from his wartime experiences. To a lesser extent, the sexist behavior of some of the characters also is bested. Thao’s older sister Sue is a very strong character, standing up for herself against the gangs.
But there is a deeper stereotype on display that isn’t totally resolved. While Walt is mentoring Thao — an invaluable investment, to be sure — he instructs him in the ways of “talking like a man.” They go to Walt’s barber for a haircut and the two old men sling epithets at each other. This is passed off as how men interact. There is no exchange of meaningful dialog, no deep connection. We’re to assume that these two men are close, but that age-old cliche of male insecurity rears its head: a false sense of machismo fills the stark void of emotion. Worse, Thao learns that the dialect of man-speech is bookended by sexism and racism.
This is where Gran Torino and I part ways. Up to that point, I’m willing to forgive Walt his transgressions. He’s a wayward Catholic man and hasn’t learned the lessons his recently departed, devout wife did. He’s human and so am I. I can also forgive the ignorance of the gangs. Their way of life has brewed them to hate for self protection and promotion. They are human and so am I.
But when Walt imparts his flawed wisdom of manhood onto his young protege… That’s where I strongly disagree. What does it mean to be a man? How are men supposed to act? Much of Walt’s 1950’s image of proper society and culture was good. That ethos instructed his generation in the ways of treating neighbors and family. Yet it also failed him immensely by walling him off emotionally from his own sons.
Surely there is a way to be authentically male while being fully engaged with our fellow people. Surely there is a way to be at peace with our masculinity, yet still relate to women and other races.
At the end of Gran Torino, Walt makes a surprising decision. He doesn’t go the direction we think he’ll go. I was pleased with his decision. He took the high road. If only Walt had taken a different road with Thao.