Gran Torino

Gran TorinoGran Torino

Clint Eastwood ::  USA :: 2008 :: 1h55

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a retired factory worker and war veteran, who lives in a gang-infested run-down neighbourhood, where he dislikes almost everyone and everything besides his own house. His life is filled with a near-perfect cliché of American redneck tough existence: arrogance, ignorance, materialist, racist and rude, sitting on his porch drinking beer with the American flag behind him, his dog at his feet and the pick-up truck in the driveway.

What changes all this, is when he finds the neighbours’ boy Thao (Bee Vang) in his garage trying to steal his car, as a gang initiation. To pay off their shame, the neighbour’s family, led by his sister Sue (Ahney Her), wisely send their son to work for Kowalski, doing whatever he sees fit. As the boy re-earns his honour, they develop a friendship, one Kowalski never had with his own children.

The movie has been, curiously enough, conjuring up quite some positive reactions. This is grossly unmerited if you look at the story-line. The main reason why the audiences are so enthusiastic, is because of Clint Eastwood himself. He is amazing. Not only his on-screen presence, but also his ability to express himself with a grunt, as the Dirty Harry revival. That might not sound like much, but it is an essential quality for a character like Kowalski. Eastwood is still clearly on top of his game, showing himself able to convincingly tell off an armed gang of thugs. That is nothing short of astonishing, remember that he is nearing 80!

Besides Clint Eastwood himself, the best characteristic is the dialogues. Naturally they are awash with racial slurs and general tough-talking testosterone fuelled insults, but they are funny and quintessentially American tough. Peculiarly enough, a lot of them pass by unnoticed when Kowalski can not help himself but insult, even as a guest in his neighbour’s home. But this tough-speak is considered essential by the film, as speaking English is enough – one has to speak “American” (i.e. insult, etc) to be considered worthy of attention. It is this attitude of Kowalski which made him a loner. He is a self-righteous brute who has traumatised his children through his lack of love and attention, not to mention his awful grandchildren – in street wear and texting at their grandmother’s funeral. None the less, Kowalski’s wife was supposedly well loved. This should make you wonder what a special woman she must have been, who could get along with both him and his family. But unfortunately we do not meet her. We are left with the ruins.

This is an upsetting film. It induces fear of the outside world, the world beyond your own porch. It encourages violence (verbal or physical) as the norm of masculine interaction.  It holds a lesson in badmouthing (Kowalski teaches Thao). It teaches racism from an every-man-for-himself perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Kowalski sits in the hospital waiting room. By then we are well enough trained by the film to be able to understand that we are supposed to be looking at race first – the people there are all not white and we are supposed to think that that is not a good thing(!?). If that was not bad enough, taking on the world vision of a redneck, Thao’s sister Sue later says to Kowalski that she is happy to meet a “real American”, suggesting that only white immigrants are real Americans and all the other immigrants which make up their country are not. And Sue is born and raised in the USA! This is a doomsday vision of the country as a cocktail of The Warriors (1979) with the USA as a gangland nation and Manderlay (2005) presenting it as an inherently racist society. Gran Torino sports the redneck vision which is neither uplifting nor accurate.

I find it hard to launch this kind of criticism against a foreign production, but spreading racism is not going to do anyone any good. Of course the film has its positive moral hidden in there, but it is not that which will stick in people’s minds. It is the endless parade of stereotypes, insults and violence which will make their point in your mind, not the inevitable moment of redemption. Well that, and of course, the brilliant performance of Clint Eastwood…


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