“Get off my lawn!” Walter Kowalski growls and points his vintage M-1 rifle, in case the thick-headed punks didn’t get the verbal message. Yes, Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) is back, stooped but still tall and rangy, a little gray on the pate, but still saying what he means through those famous clenched teeth and backing it up with firepower.
Walter Kowalski is a retired auto worker who recently lost his beloved wife. The neighborhood, once solidly white, has changed dramatically and become the destination point for African Americans, Latinos and most disturbingly, Southeast Asians, specifically Hmong refugees. Like many Americans Walter can’t distinguish a Hmong person from a Chinese. And he doesn’t want to anyway. A severely disturbed Korean War vet, who hates what he did in that war, he dislikes all people who look “Asian” and thus force him to bring up ancient memories he wants to stay buried.
The Hmong people are as ethnically different from Chinese as the Irish are from the Italians. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong, famous mountain fighters, supported the American troops. When the war ended, they were subject to horrible reprisals and several American charitable groups brought Hmong refugees to the U.S. The older Hmong people cling to their traditional ways, speak only Hmong and keep to themselves. But the youngsters, educated in English-speaking schools, want to assimilate into contemporary American culture and be like other kids.. Living next door to Walter is such a family, the Lors. There’s the tobacco-spitting grandma and overworked parents, caught between the old and new ways. And the teenagers–smart-mouthed older sister Sue Lor (Agney Her) and her timid younger brother Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang).
Thao is being harassed by his tough older cousins to join their gang. They insist he perform a rite of initiation — to steal Walter Kowalski’s prized possession, his mint 1972 Gran Torino. Walter catches Thao. Humiliated at the boy’s behavior, Thao’s family insists that he atone by working many hours for Walter– a situation neither one of them wants. When Walter rescues Thao from the gang attack with his M-1, Walter becomes the hero of the neighborhood.
To express their gratitude to him, Walter’s Hmong neighbors shower him day after day with unwanted gifts and invitations. At first with reluctance, then with gusto, he tastes their delicious food, observes their ancient traditions, jousts with them in language both spoken and unspoken. As time goes by, Walter teaches Thao the esoteric details of how to be an American male. It’s a touching, sometimes profane, and often hilarious rite of passage. Estranged from his own sons, partly by his own untreated PTSD and partly by the stereotype of the characters, Walter gives Thao the fatherly guidance he was never able to pass on to his flesh and blood.
Like sores, the gang has just been waiting for the right time to strike back. Sue is brutally attacked and thrown like garbage on her front porch. All the nightmares of the Vietnam war hit her family like fresh fusillade. Everyone knows the gang will come again.
Up to this point, Gran Torino has been an entertaining, likeable story about an old grouch who is humanized by strangers. Director Clint Eastwood gives his character and the Hmong characters –all of whom are portrayed with winning conviction by novice Hmong players–a comfortable appeal. But underneath this benign tale, the audience is always aware that Clint Eastwood used to be Dirty Harry and he did after all appear with that loaded M-1 and hiss in his famous tight-lipped “make my day” way–there’s bound to be some violence.
The film gives the violence an unexpected twist. Instead of becoming a vigilante, Walter Kowalski turns himself into a self-sacrificing Christ-figure. He works out a clever plan whereby he forces the gang members to kill him, in front of witnesses, which will insure that they will all be arrested and put in jail–no longer able to threaten the Lors or other members of the neighborhood. This aspect of the story is what has appealed to many audiences and quite a few critics.
I found the whole twist disingenuous and its widespread appeal to be misplaced. Here’s why. Walter Kowalski, we learn, is dying from cancer and doesn’t have long to live. He doesn’t have any overwhelming reason to live longer anyway. His wife is dead. He hates his kids and feels no obligation to make up to them, or his grandchildren, for failing them in the past. He’s satisfied that Thao got the lessons he needed to survive. Since he’s going to die soon anyway — a painful, miserable, undignified death from cancer — Walter decides, while he still has the physical strength and independence to be in control of such decisions, to die in a manner of his own choice.
My question is: how heroic is that really? If Walter Kowalski was in perfect health, falling in love with a new woman, and crazy about his kids and grandkids, would he have let himself be slaughtered by the gang members? I think not. And that is why Walter Kowalski’s decision to sacrifice himself is not a totally selfless act, rather it’s the act of a pragmatic man who wants to die quickly and sees a way to let that death help others.
For the record, my husband totally disagrees with me. He, like many others, found Gran Torino to be satisfying, and felt that Clint Eastwood’s last role was a welcome portrait of grace and redemption.