Redeeming the all-American racist

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Gran Torino: 116 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

A more or less straight line could be drawn between actor/director Clint Eastwood's starring roles in revisionist western Unforgiven, boxing fable Million Dollar Baby and, now, suburban race drama Gran Torino. This rogues gallery of Eastwood's latter career comprises antiheroes grappling their way to atonement and redemption for sins past.

The most recent is Walt, Gran Torino's all-American neighbourhood racist; a gun-toting, flag-waving Korean War vet, who passes his days guzzling beer on the front porch of his middle American suburban home, spewing xenophobic slander, most notably towards the 'zipperhead' Hmong refugee family that lives next door.

To be fair, Walt appears to dislike everybody, regardless of their skin colour. His adult sons and their families — whose good humour at Walt's incessantly ill manner, even at his own wife's funeral, has worn thin — would pay testament to that.

Same goes for Father Janovich (Carley), the good natured young priest charged by Walt's late wife with trying to redeem the crotchety widower. Walt is resistant to the priest's well-meant platitudes, and dismisses the man as an 'overeducated 27-year-old virgin' who gets his kicks out of promising eternal life to 'superstitious old ladies'.

Unexpectedly, Gran Torino (which takes its title from Walt's most prized possession, the all-American's all-American car) is very funny. Walt's frequent racist remarks are cause for amusement, once you accept that they are the result of his own neurosis. So exaggerated and unfounded are his prejudices that Walt becomes a send-up of himself.

The truth is, with Walt, it's all a matter of knowing how to talk to him. The film juxtaposes the exasperated failure of Walt's son Mitch (Haley) to communicate with the old man, with Walt's good-naturedly abusive relationship with his barber Martin (Lynch). Walt, it seems, respects those who can give as good as they get.

So an unlikely friendship emerges between Walt and two Hmong teenagers who live next door. Sue (Her) quips quick-fire comebacks to any slander Walt can dish out, and wears down his gruff resolve. Her brother, Thao (Vang), grows on him too; soon enough Walt takes the boy under his wing, mentoring him and helping him to find work.

Cultural pressures weigh heavily in the teens' lives. Walt learns that there is a truism among the refugee community, that the women go to 'college' and the men go to jail. Sure enough, Thao is under pressure from a local gang to surrender to the stereotype.

For Thao, the threat of violence is constant. This sets Walt, and the plot of Gran Torino, on a self-consciously messianic course. The film's inevitably tragic finale is not as ambiguous as the ethically hazy climax to Eastwood's previous actor/director vehicle, Million Dollar Baby. Yet, paradoxically, it is less fulfilling in its heavy-handedness.

Walt's redemption, after all, takes place in the everyday course of his life: his grudging, growing respect for the priest; his bond with Sue and Thao, and his understanding of the cultural and social factors bearing on their lives; his realisation that he is as alien to his neighbours, as they are to him — a trite lesson, but warmly and humorously evoked by the film. These resonate more loudly than any overwrought messianic symbolism.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

 

Topic tags: tim kroenert, gran torino, clint eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley

 

 

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Existing comments

Wow! You write a good film review sir. At the half way point I was thinking: this is not a film I want to see, despite as you put it - and to paraphrase - "Walt's racist remarks being a cause for amusement, once you accept that they are the result of his own neurosis."

I like the notion that "an unlikely friendship emerges between Walt and two Hmong teenagers next door." At this point the film became a 'might see'.

Then, we read: "... Sue ... quips quick-fire comebacks to any slander Walt can dish out, and wears down his gruff resolve." My interest quickens! And by the time: "Her brother...grows on him too; soon enough Walt takes the boy under his wing, mentoring him and helping him to find work."

Hey this is a film I would love to see; on my list it goes. And the 'N' in 'L' St is so cooool. Usually.
dee aitch | 29 January 2009


Eastwood's great 'redemption' film is in the class of Pay it Forward, a real-life Jesus-style parable complete with crucifixion. Sure leaves Mel Gibson's Passion at the starting blocks
mike parer | 29 January 2009


I was v interested in your review of Gran Torino. Easily persuadable and quite old, I loved it.

The confession scene was so moving: I watched the film with a friend who has a troubled connection with his sons. When CE said that he had not known how to be close to his sons, friend started to cry.

And the whole cross-cultural issue is so important.

Reviews (online) are not great. But there is a lot in this film, especially for the wrinklies, and for those who have experience with the cross-cultural scene.

CE amazing at 78. I can just remember the Korean war: my grandparents' neighbours were so relieved that their son made it back. Combat damage ( my father and grandfather) is so under-reported.

I'm glad I was able to catch this film; don't catch many. Just caught up with All About Eve: lots to say about that.
Irene | 30 January 2009


[SPOILER ALERT]

"The film's inevitably tragic finale is not as ambiguous as the ethically hazy climax to Eastwood's previous actor/director vehicle, Million Dollar Baby. Yet, paradoxically, it is less fulfilling in its heavy-handedness."

I'm sorry, Tim, but I couldn't disagree with you more. The finale of Gran Torino was superbly crafted precisely because it leads you to believe that Walt would, after all, "deal" with the problems facing Sue and Thao in the time-honoured, blow-em-away Dirty Harry fashion - only to completely surprise you with the Christ-likeness of his act of self-giving love.

From my perspective, there was nothing obvious, self-conscious, or heavy-handed about it; on the contrary, Walt is a Christ for our world and for the church of the modern world.

I will agree with you in one respect, though: the vein of dark humour running through Gran Torino adds to its many dimensions; and the scene in the barber shop when Walt and his equally curmudgeonly friend Martin try to teach Thao how to talk like a "real man" is frankly hilarious.
Brendan Byrne | 15 February 2009


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