In his new excellent film, Gran Torino, the audience is introduced to Clint Eastwood by means of a growl: a deep, canine beast of a sound from Walt Kowalski, a recently-widowed, grizzled Korean War veteran. He’s expressing displeasure at his grandchildren, who have arrived at his wife’s funeral inappropriately dressed. We hear that growl again later at the wake, after the Grumpy Old Man brushes off the priest as “an overeducated 27-year old virgin”, and looks with disdain at the Hmong immigrants celebrating the birth of a baby next door.
The growl is a perfect symbol for the film; it’s consciously over-the-top and unsubtle embroidery, but it emanates naturally and organically from Kowalski’s larger-than-life character. Here, Eastwood proves that he himself is the best steward of his identity as an American icon. It’s a tricky performance, though: we’re asked to accept him as a beaten-down, PBR-guzzling bigot, and it’s Nick Schenk’s screenplay, deftly treading between nail-biting drama and scabrous comedy, that makes it work.
The plot is fairly conventional – as is the craft behind the film itself (though the scenes in shadow are lit as beautifully as those in Million Dollar Baby, from 2004) – but it’s well worth savoring. Slowly, if inevitably, Kowalski is drawn into his Hmong neighbors’ world, and becomes an unlikely surrogate father, but in a flinty, unsentimental way. He catches his neighbor’s son, Thao (played by newcomer Bee Vang), trying to steal his 1972 Gran Torino; it’s Thao’s first criminal act, as a part of gang initiationby orders of his cousin. Thao escapes, but Kowalski “saves” him again when the gangbangers return. (Though it doesn’t exactly work that way; Kowalski’s lines to everyone are still a hissed “Get off my lawn”, this movie’s version of “Go ahead. Make my day.”) Later he meets Thao’s sister, Sue (the excellent Ahney Her). She’s feisty and takes no shit, which is why Kowalski takes a shine to her pretty quickly. He even lets her calls him Wally.
Gran Torino has been described as “Harry Callahan in retirement”, but it’s easier to imagine – probably because the movie was easier to forget – that Kowalski more likely resembles the leathery gunnery sergeant in his 1986 film Heartbreak Ridge. Kowalski is actually closer in spirit to William Munny, who hangs up his holsters twice in Eastwood’s elegiac Western film Unforgiven (1992): a gunslinger with the bitter taste of heroism in his mouth.
In his recent films, most notably Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), Eastwood has explored the fraudulence of American myth and the burden of history – even the latter haunts the chilling Mystic River (2003). Gran Torino is no exception, but what makes it even more special is its modest, almost intimate, scale. Kowalski is a Korean War veteran – “Where’s Korea?” one of his grandchildren asks – and also a former Ford autoworker, railing at his son for driving a Toyota. (Even his preferred weapon of choice is an old M1 Garand, which I recognized from being taught how to disassemble and assemble one back in the day.) What this burden is I can’t reveal, but especially with his unrelenting, casual racism, Kowalski is presented as an anachronism, albeit portrayed with a tiny tinge of nostalgia. In a sense, he is as much a stereotype as the Asian gangbangers, the living embodiment of the passing of an old order. (The standard journalistic catchphrase used to refer to Hmong when they were first arriving was “the most primitive refugee group in America” — obviously wrong for so many reasons — but in contrast, Kowalski is seen by his grandchildren, his priest, and his Hmong neighbors as being as much of a curiosity as the Hmong are.)
Because of Eastwood’s craggy presence in the film, you might miss newcomer Bee Vang’s fine performance as Kowalski’s reluctant surrogate son; he progresses from being awkward and resentful, to being filled with a boyish bravado. In a series of hilarious scenes, Thao – constantly referred to as “Toad” by Kowalski – is taught to “talk like a man” by bitching about the old lady, or talking about his car, or eventually dropping a racial epithet in his conversation. The scenes are wryly funny, as Kowalski teaches Thao a stylized but clearly dated version of masculine banter.
Some people might find problematic the fact that Thao is taught how to be a man by Kowalski, who happens to be white; Thao is constantly berated as a “pussy” and told to “man up”. I don’t necessarily see any form of Asian emasculation implied here; the clear implication in the film is that it’s a preferred form of manhood that doesn’t require carrying a gun – a significantly different version of masculinity than what the gangbangers are offering Thao. (One can, in fact, imagine Kowalski providing his own ungrateful son the same sort of tough-love instruction.)
The film isn’t perfect, for sure. His son and his family are no more than broadly-drawn caricatures, secondary characters in a sitcom, for instance. A small chunk of Gran Torino is also devoted to a quick-and-dirty historical lesson about the Hmong – Sue serves as tour guide – but it’s a necessary, if somewhat clumsy, step. When was the last time you actually saw Hmong in a mainstream American movie? (To the movie’s credit, Kowalski doesn’t play the eager liberal excited to consume ethnic difference; he responds with a grunt and keeps willfully pronouncing “Hmong”, but he ends up liking their chicken dumplings.) I’m not terribly sure about cultural accuracy, either: I don’t know, for instance, whether Hmong would have really filled such an unlikeable white man’s doorstep with food and flowers simply out of gratitude.
The overall, somewhat problematic narrative of Gran Torino – and it’s one you can see, misleadingly, in the previews – seems to be one of “White man saves Asians from themselves.” It’s a little more complex than that, of course – it’s actually the other way around – but this reversal is itself a standard cinematic trope. Kowalski talks flippantly of killing Asians – “We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea and use you for sandbags” – but the motivations for his later actions aren’t exactly driven by a generalized racial guilt, but an individualized, almost paternal one.
What would perhaps disturb people the most is Kowalski’s tossed-off bigotry; other than that aforementioned growl, his language is peppered with a profane plethora of gooks, chinks, slopes, slanteyes, shrimpdicks and zipperheads. And yes, I laughed in horror and cringed at the same time; they’re certainly words I wouldn’t want to hear yelled at me on the street. It seems a bit like a cheap Borat-like stunt; the humor – and it actually is really funny – seems to come merely from the outrageous fact that Kowalski is actually saying these words. (The dialogue has snap, but the profanity just doesn’t sing in quite the same way as in a Mamet play.)
Indeed, some may be displeased even by the fact that his epithet-laden banter with an Italian barber and an Irish foreman seems to be an attempt to show that he’s an equal-opportunity racist (“that’s just the way he talks”, one might say), thereby taking the sting off all the anti-Asian remarks. But it also serves a clear function in the movie: it would make his reluctant allowing of Thao and Sue into his life – and his into theirs – less believable if he disliked only Asians. And indeed, halfway through the film, his anti-Asian profanities, when uttered to Thao and Sue, are transformed precisely into just that: odd solidarity-creating banter. We’re still clearly not meant to like the unrepentant Kowalski though.
Someone on an Asian American internet bulletin board had commented that Kowalski was using racial insults “he [the viewer] hadn’t even heard before”, and perhaps that’s exactly the point. We’re not in post-racial America, and will never be; and yet it seems that the most glaringly anachronistic thing about Kowalski is that he still sees micks and dagos and nips and spooks everywhere. It’s a sensitive and outrageous and infuriating and self-parodic and altogether brilliant performance from Eastwood in this infuriating and brilliant film.