Eastwood grapples with culture and violence in his moving ‘Gran Torino’

January 18, 2013

Two deaths bracket the 2008 movie Gran Torino, which stars and was directed by Clint Eastwood. Of the second, I shall say little to nothing other than that, like the first, it personally affects Eastwood’s character.

But the man at the beginning of the movie and the one at the end are, if you’ll forgive my pun, very different characters. As the film opens, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) stands in a Catholic church by the casket of his dead wife. The stone-faced retired automobile factory worker strains to hold back a contemptuous growl as his grandchildren — one clad in a Detroit Lions football jersey, another in a midriff-baring top — casually approach their pew and cross themselves with varying degrees of sincerity and mockery. When Father Janovich, a rosy-cheeked young priest, begins his homily, Kowalski scarcely chokes back a derisive snort.

A wake follows at Kowalski’s home. But while the house is packed with people, Kowalski hardly seems to notice the company. He callously dismisses Janovich’s attempt at conversation, his granddaughter’s offer to help him with a minor chore, and a neighbor’s request for jump cable.

The young neighbor Kowalski barks at is a gentle teenager of Hmong ethnicity named Thao. He lives with his older sister, Sue, and their mother and grandmother. (And perhaps one or two others — I may have missed something.)

This character, who barely speaks in most of his early scenes, is beloved by his immediate family but considered a non-entity. As extended family and neighbors gather for a ceremony to bless a newborn baby, an older male relative cuts in front of Thao without acknowledgment as the teenager scrubs a stack of dishes at the sink.

Kowalski seems inclined to avoid human contact with anyone other than his old war and work buddies. Thao isn’t quite as isolated, but there are people he’s eager to avoid. Specifically, he’d prefer not to be drawn into the gun-toting gang that his older cousin Spider has joined. He tries to resist but eventually agrees to an initiation that ends up going horribly wrong in a wonderfully right way. 

The gang dispatches Thao to steal Kowalski’s pride and joy, the titular 1972 Ford muscle car that the old guy helped build (literally, in the case of the vehicle in his garage). But the watchful widower tumbles to mischief being afoot and marches into the garage with his gun. A panicked Thao knocks him down and escapes.

The next night, Spider and company angrily try to take a yet more reluctant Thao for a ride. The buff young gang members start tussling with the teenager, his slight sister and two older relatives. When the melee spills over into Kowalski’s yard, the curmudgeon levels his weapon and orders the gang members off his lawn. Yielding to old man’s steely muzzle and gaze, the gangbangers take off. When the Hmong thank Kowalski, he growls at them, too, to get off his lawn.

Soon afterward, Kowalski happens to drive by a street corner where three black gangsters are menacing Sue and her goofy, hapless would-be boyfriend. The auto worker pulls his handgun and again rescues the potential victim from danger. The sassy young woman bonds with crusty Kowalski as they ride away. Soon afterward, Sue and her family invite their neighbor to a barbecue.

Thus, naturally and beautifully, the man who despised his neighbors are drawn together. The bond only deepens when the Hmong family — the Vang Lors, per an Internet Movie Database plot synopsis — insist that Thao spend a spell as Kowalski’s servant to atone for his attempted car theft.

After initially ignoring the wispy teen he calls Toad and worse, or sentencing him to time-wasting tasks such as counting the birds in a tree, Kowalski starts putting him to work repairing local houses. (A proud home owner, the old guy despises the Hmong who have neglected their residential properties.) The friendship grows stronger as Kowalski helps his protégé get a construction job.

But as touching as these relationships are, they don’t magically banish the very real problems that Kowalski and his family are facing. Having already intervened in his neighbors’ lives, more or less on the spur of the moment, Kowalski continues to intervene. The consequences aren’t always predictable, and Kowalski finds himself working to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

One of the joys of Gran Turino is that it unfolds in a thoroughly organic fashion; very little of the plot feels forced to fit a Hollywood formula. As a result, the viewer often wonders what’s going to happen. (This despite knowing, having seen advertisements for the movie, that these characters are going to come together.) Steadily but surely, as the audience comes to know and like the characters, the stakes rise and the tale approaches its climax.

Something in particular that I wondered about was how messy or neat the film’s resolution would be. It turned out to be a combination of both — more or less pleasing but not entirely convincing.

Despite its minor-chord themes of aging, decay, mortality, and despite its exotic Hmong characters, Gran Torino turns out to be a surprisingly traditional studio film in the end. Yet its message, lessons and emotions are earned; having seen the characters grow, often slowly and begrudgingly, we know that hardship and pain underlie the movie’s uplift and growth.

So ultimately, Gran Torino turns out to be a pleasant mix of tradition and novelty. This quirky, charming and gritty film may not be a masterpiece, but it’s something any lover of movie drama and character-driven stories will likely enjoy.

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