I began writing this review in order to cope with my grandmother being sent home with hospice, and then I spent most of the last week visiting her along with the rest of my family. She is no longer here as of this morning, and now more than ever I feel compelled to complete and share this.
"A Mexican, a Jew, and a colored guy walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, 'Get the fuck out of here.'"
So here's a movie pitch for you: Known best for his various roles as cowboys and cowboy-cops, Clint Eastwood stars in and directs Gran Torino, a 2008 film about an old, bitter Korean War veteran that comes to terms with the life he's led and the changing world around him, represented in part by the decrepit, post industrial suburb that he has resided in since the end of the war and that has now become populated by a culture of people that he does not and is not particularly inclined to understand. Along the way, he mentors a young Hmong boy in between the various insults and racial epithets that he hurls at passers-by.
That's right, this is a heavy drama celebrating 20th century, emotionally repressed, racist midwestern grandpas. Maybe you didn't have one of those, but maybe you did. I suspect that at least some of this film's appeal, especially among the nostagic, 21st century midwestern grandsons demographic, is whether or not Walt Kowalski reminds you of someone you know or once knew. I also suspect that this premise is going to be a deal breaker for many people, not least of which those that fashion themselves as politically opposed to the very existence of people like Walt, and I hope I don't poison the well by saying that. This is not a political movie. There is however a humanity to it that is occasionally ugly, and uglier still than any of the careless remarks that Walt employs as weapons against anyone that would invade the joyless serenity of his porch, lawn chair, and cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The better side of Walt's nature does find an opportunity to show through, and in precisely the sort of redemptive fashion that one would expect from a film like this, but it doesn't change who he is. He cannot change. It's too late for that, if ever there was a possibility. In recognizing that Walt is seriously flawed, and inescapably so, the movie manages to stay believable and maintain an emotional resonance that I have not been able to find in anything else.
The film opens to funereal pipe organs, just in case there was any doubt as to the mood Eastwood was going for with this one. We see Walt Kowalski stiffly acknowledging the well wishes from an old family friend before he scowls at his grandchildren as they shuffle into a front row pew. The granddaughter is baring her middriff and a younger grandson sports a Lions jersey. Walt's two sons notice their father's disapproval and chuckle to themselves at the prospect of having to take him in now that their mother has passed. There isn't a single tear in sight, and a sense of unnatural detachment seems to permeate the whole thing. Walt barely seems to know these people, and on this day that they are supposed to offer their final farewell to their wife, mother, and grandmother they all look as though they'd rather be anywhere else. Walt mutters "Jesus" under his breath as the young priest offers up an almost unbearably inane eulogy. "Because the Lord is the sweetness..."
Following this, Walt attempts to return to a life of glaring disapprovingly at the state of his neighbors' lawns. The sparse interactions he has with his family only seems to highlight the lack of understanding between them - he kicks out one of his sons when they suggest that he move into a retirement home - and without his wife it is clear that Walt is truly alone. The priest from the funeral service repeatedly pesters the old man, having promised Mrs. Kowalski during her final months that he would convince her husband to go to Confession, but Walt rebukes him at every turn. Further complicating this desire to be left the hell alone is when Thao, a Hmong youth living next door and hounded by his cousin ("Spider") to join the neighborhood gang, tries and fails to steal Walt's 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Walt is content to snarl threats and obscenities at the boy and leave it at that, but Thao's family feel that they share in his shame and insist that the debt be repaid in labor. And so Walt and Thao find themselves in each other's company despite the wishes of either one and amid escalating pressure by Spider and his goons.
We've essentially got a four person main cast here: Walt, Thao, Father Janovich, and Sue, Thao's older sister. Walt warms to Sue easier than he does her brother and the interactions between the two are among the most charming in the movie.
" And you're a better man to [Thao] than our own father was. You're a good man."
"I'm not a good man. Get me another beer, Dragon Lady. This one's empty."
If you've got this far and concluded that you know precisely what happens in Gran Torino, you're probably right. You've seen something like this before. It's almost a morality play at points, with what is clearly intended to be an elderly Dirty Harry-type character learning, if only in part, to tolerate and perhaps even appreciate the Hmong community that has moved in around him. Thao discovers what it means to be a man even as his peers embody the worst of male directionlessness and delinquency and refuse to accept that Thao might want to choose a different kind of life. In light of this, and considering that she is the one that initially brings these two together, it is perhaps easy to guess what Sue is ultimately there for.
Whenever I bring this movie up in the presence of my mother or my sister it invariably leads them to reminisce about "Papa", or my maternal grandfather. The resemblance between Walt Kowalski and grandpa Famov is truly uncanny, which makes it even more conspicuous when I read assorted forum posts and youtube comments asserting that Walt very much reminds them of their father, grandfather, uncle, or whatever. The truth is, Walt is the embodiment of a person from a very particular time and place. This archetypal man grew up relatively poor, went to war, came home shattered from the horrors he encountered overseas, and then spent the next forty years working very hard while his wife raised a family that he never quite knew how to get close to. He did good enough, if only barely, and now that his children are grown up and have their own lives he realizes that he barely knows who they are. Along the way, he watched as the city that he raised this family in fell apart before his very eyes. And, of course, he's a cantankerous drinker and smoker that never seems to care much about his long term prospects on this earth, much less how his words and actions affect other people.
On the face of things, much of this description doesn't actually apply to my grandfather at all, but the gruff, no nonsense behavior that nevertheless has no place in polite conversation is still unmistakable. But Walt isn't just everyone's racist grandfather. He is an idealization of racist grandfathers. Over the course of the film Walt draws guns on gangbangers no less than three times. If my Papa had tried that, and I'm not saying he wouldn't have dared, he probably would have been put in the hospital or worse. The reality is, virtually everyone I knew that ever lived in Detroit moved out at least fifty years ago. Even the ones that continued living in the "old neighborhood" knew better than to drive into the bad part of town, let alone challenge a group of "urban youths" by casually dropping anachronistic slurs before drawing a wartime Colt. But Walt Kowalski does all of these things and somehow manages to never get arrested for it. The inadequacies of Detroit law enforcement notwithstanding, a crazed old man repeatedly shoving a .45 in the faces of people he encounters on the street will eventually get their attention.
Walt gets away with it because he is this idealized folk hero. And I know I just got around to saying that this movie was believable, and it is, but more in terms of the setting and the character foibles than the sequence of events that take place. There is an authenticity here that allows the movie to ask a question: What if? What if this man you knew, for all his flaws, was able to settle some of his bitterness before he died? What if he was able to find some measure of satisfaction in the things he'd done? And what if, when his flame inevitably did burn out, he was able to do so while still of sound mind and body, standing on his own two feet, and having somehow redeemed that godforsaken town when no one else thought it was possible.
That is what I believe Gran Torino is trying to do. When Walt finally does go to Confession, he barely gives Father Janovich anything to work with. He doesn't offer a single word about what he did in Korea, instead opting to mention the time he illicitly sold a boat motor and stole a kiss from the neighbor lady. Walt had no intention of finding any kind of resolution for those sins that weighed heaviest on his soul. Most of these men never do. But the movie acknowledges that this is what happens, and that it really is okay.
All of the Hmong actors, including the leads, were drawn from the local Detroit area. They are, for the most part, amateurs, and some of the dialogue is a bit stiff because of this. Sue in particular has several awkward moments, but it's not something I find all that distracting. The reality is, it's easy to look past the flaws in any given work when it otherwise speaks to us on such a personal level. It is also probably easy to ignore flaws when you're as cinematically plebeian as I am. Put another way, I don't watch dramas! They're slow and emotional and I'd normally rather do anything else. I've seen the entirety of David Firth's Burnt Face Man a dozen times over, but I'd panic if someone tried to sit me down to watch The Titanic or Dances With Wolves. Gran Torino, on the other hand, is probably my favorite movie. I would recommend it to anyone, if only so that they might begin to understand where I come from.