A Polack with a Gun: Clint Eastwood's Peculiar Study of Racism in GRAN TORINO

(Originally written in 2008) In Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, we get a story about a racist old codger named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) who slowly and begrudgingly befriends an ethnic family of Hmong decent who lives next door to him. Even though there aren't a lot places for a story like this to go, many elements work exceedingly well in the film. There is a humorously awkward clash of cultures as well as several tender moments. Eastwood also looks great on screen. He may no longer have the quickdraw of Josey Wales, but his fists are still hard and his squint still piercing. Even with his wiry gray hair, he hasn’t lost any of his onscreen charm and charisma, and though he is playing a grumpy old bastard, he is our grumpy old bastard.

Apparently, this is Eastwood last onscreen performance, so it's hard not to get a bit nostalgic. Eastwood has not only survived an entire lifetime within a cutthroat business that has a penchant for eating people alive, he has done something else even more rare in Hollywood: he has evolved. In the last 10 or 15 years, Eastwood has really proven himself to be a sincere and calculated artist who seems to do little without heartfelt reasons or thought. Directing Flags of Our Fathers and then showing the Japanese counterview in Letters from Iwo Jima was both radical and brave. I also think that Gran Torino, much like Unforgiven, works brilliantly as an homage while simultaneously deconstructing many of the revenge films upon which he built his career. In theory, Gran Torino is the perfect choice with which to exit the screen, and it offers a nice bookend to a prolific career.
For a moment though, let’s push Eastwood's iconic image and the significance of Gran Torino aside and look at the film on it’s own terms. To begin with, I always get nervous when the first lines of a film are exposition. Gran Torino opens at the funeral of Walt’s wife, and the camera pans over to Walt’s sons sitting in the church who say (literally within the first 60 seconds): “Dad still lives in the ’50s,” and “There’s nothing anyone can do that won’t disappoint the old man.” I kept thinking to myself: What's the rush? It's you're last performance; give us some time to get into the picture and figure things out. Much of the film's narrative in fact is painted with these broad strokes. All of the racial groups are presented as stereotypes, not just to Walt, but to us as well. Notice how the African American youths are depicted on the street corner, and the Mexican youths in their low-rider car before Thao’s cousin arrives (in his souped-up Honda no less). We don’t just get ethnic stereotypes though; nearly every single secondary character in the film is contrived. Notice how flat Walt’s sons are portrayed, not to mention his grandchildren. They are all stick figures placed into the story to move the plot along. The priest, while dogged, is just a kid without any authority or weight, so when Eastwood calls him “Padre” and the priest calls Eastwood “Son,” it's played for laughs.

I do give credit to Eastwood for casting actual Hmong Vietnamese Americans to play the roles of the Lor family. Unfortunately, the fact that most are not professional actors is painfully clear. I partially blame Eastwood here for not only making the wrong casting choices, but for not directing them better. Both Thao and Sue talk quickly without listening, they don’t project their voices, nor do they have any physical understanding of their bodies on screen. Often, they both mumble and frequently walk away while they’re still talking.

All of these problems are more technical issues though. Thematically, the film also seems fragile. On one hand, the story is about how a racist old curmudgeon learns the error of his ways and redeems himself through a sacrificial act. On the other hand, there is something peculiar about the way the story is told. Eastwood positions us on the side of Walt even before his redemptive moment. One can see this by how everyone in the audience laughs at the racial slurs in the film. Why do we do this? If we are meant to critique Walt and see him as lost or fallen and thus feel enlivened when he is redeemed, why does Eastwood place us so much on his side before the change? I think this problem becomes glaringly apparent at the end of the film during the reading of the will, when Walt gives the conditions under which he bequeaths his car to Thao. Walt, when writing his will, knew what he was going to do, and in terms of the film was already redeemed, yet he still uses racial slurs, and, for some reason, it's still meant to be humorous.

In a theoretical sense, Eastwood is unable to separate narrative from theme. This is a subtle distinction, but think about Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker in All in the Family. Here’s a fellow racist, who minus the cool car and the guns, is not unlike Walt Kowalksi. Yet, notice the difference. With Bunker, you don’t laugh at what he says; you laugh at Bunker himself. He is the fool. Is there anywhere in Gran Torino where Walt is positioned as a fool? Why not? Isn’t he ignorant throughout the majority of the film? He is, but Eastwood does not position him as so, which means we are not allowed to see him as despicable. Imagine you're father or uncle or grandfather speaking like Walt does in the film. Would you laugh in the same way? I imagine most would react as Walt's sons do- frustrated, impatient, and even embarrassed. Yet, within the context of the film, his sons are the ones who are backwards and unsympathetic. This thematic problem becomes most noticeable when Walt goes to confession near the end of the film. Isn’t it interesting that he mentions nothing about his racism or even anger towards others? Either he doesn’t want to be forgiven, or he feels he doesn’t need to be forgiven. With the former, redemption becomes impossible; with the latter, redemption becomes unnecessary. Walt’s final act then becomes hollow and without much meaning or sacrifice at all, because, within the context of the film, Walt was never really that bad in the first place. Gran Torino ultimately collapses in on itself because Eastwood wants it both ways: for Walt to receive salvation in the end, but for us to laugh at his "sin" along the way.