Yuckko-bluckey! I feel like this blog is turning into a movie review column. If so, it’s happening on its own. Completely on its own volition. I have no interest in being a movie reviewer. In fact, I have little interest in the popular imagination, of which movies are, along with music, almost the heart and soul. Ugggh! I have touched pitch, and I am defiled.
But I suppose what makes the pitch tolerable. What makes me come back to this piney woods with my little tree saw over and over. Is that these stories. Stories presented in movies. Just like any stories, but these for the masses. Tell us what is important about ourselves, who we are, where we fit in the scheme of things, what a good life and a not so good life look like, how we might fall short and do better, what right and wrong relation to others looks like, what human purpose and meaning look like, whether there is a god or not, what our relation to God looks like, assuming there is a god, and so on.
And so I come to Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s latest film. A 2008 release. Which helps us understand something about Walt, the main character, a retired Ford assembly plant worker. A man who growls routinely at his children, his grandchildren, and the world, at the world his Detroit neighborhood has turned into, as it has been occupied by the Hmong, a people who have immigrated to the U.S. from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, following the Vietnam war, escaping the communists who liked murdering them for helping the Americans.
The movie opens in grief, at a funeral for Walt’s wife who has just died. A funeral at which his grandchildren dishonor him and his wife. A funeral at which a shallow eulogy is preached, and Walt’s sons attend because they must. Not because of love for their father or their mother.
The movie is often funny because Walt is funny. His sour, mean-spirited demeanor is out of proportion. He is really much more tender-hearted than he’d like others to believe.
The progress of the movie moves along three lines, really. The discovery on our part of the depth of Walt’s sons’ and their families’ selfishness and self-centeredness. The discovery on Walt’s part of the humanity of the Hmong people living around him, and his progressive involvement in the lives of two of them—Thao, a teenage boy, and his sister, Sue, a single young woman—who live next door to Walt with their grandmother. And Walt’s discovery of the possibility of undoing, in a sense, two wrongs he has committed—the unnecessary killing of a young North Korean soldier in the Korean War, and the withholding of his affection from his two sons as they were growing up.
This latter movement or theme—the possibility of redeeming one’s past misdeeds through right relation and right action in the present—gets worked out in his relationship with Thao and Sue, two young people who find themselves put upon, bullied, and tormented by a Hmong gang that terrorizes the neighborhood. Walt steps in to protect them by a mistake at first—by protecting his property rights against the gang.
But this quickly moves into his functioning as a mentor or grandfather-like figure to Thao, showing him how to perform domestic maintenance, instructing him (as best he can) in what it means to be a man, and getting Thao his first job through a friend in the construction business. He helps Thao learn and adopt manly responsibilities, as Sue instructs Walt in what it means to be a member of the Hmong community.
Soon, Walt is integrated into the life of his community again. His new community of Hmong people. So as the movie progresses, we see Walt show the love toward Thao that he seems to have withheld from his sons and that his grandsons and granddaughter clearly do not deserve or welcome. We see him nurture an Asian teenager, in contrast to his daily memory of killing an Asian teenager in the Korean war.
Then of course, there is the 1972 Gran Torino, on which Walt personally installed the steering column and which he keeps carefully garaged and waxed, only to be driven on special occasions. It is the emblem to Walt of what has been good in his life and the good of his work. Thao enters into Walt’s life through his attempt to steal Walt’s Gran Torino as a forced initiation into the Hmong gang that has made Thao’s life difficult. And it is because of this mistake, this sin of attempted theft, that Thao and Walt begin their relationship. It is to make amends that Thao begins an apprenticeship to Walt and is able to move forward successfully toward manhood.
Just as Thao is subordinated to Walt, so is Walt subordinated, in a sense, to Thao and Sue. He becomes their protector, with his Army-issue M1 rifle and his .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol. Their aged soldier. And as the Hmong gang continues to escalate their bullying of Thao and Sue, so does Walt escalate the threat of violence and then actual violence toward the gang.
Finally, after the gang shoots up Thao’s and Sue’s house, wounding Thao, and after the gang rapes Sue, Walt understands what must be done. He understands that, short of moving away, Thao and Sue will continue to be victims of the Hmong gang. Thao may be coerced into becoming a member of the gang after all. Sue may never be allowed to move on with her life. She will always be sexually threatened.
Something must be done. The gang must somehow be eliminated. Must somehow be eradicated. Excised.
At this point, the movie shifts into overdrive. It moves from humorous comedy, interspersed with the threat of death and destruction, into high, humorless comedy, with redeeming death at its center. The Hmong gang must be dealt with. They must be dealt with effectively. So Walt confronts them in such a way that he is killed and they are arrested, to be imprisoned long enough to enable Thao and Sue to grow up and move on into adulthood.
So the progress of the movie is from bigotry to altruism, from hatred to love, from alienation to integration and affirmation. From isolation and death to the reaffirmation of life. From sin to redemption. Polish Walt—the offspring of immigrants—saves the children of other immigrants. And he leaves to Thao, his adopted grandson, his Gran Torino, the symbol to Walt of all that has been good in his life here, in the land of the free. In America.
So what we rediscover here is that love entails sacrifice. Sometimes it requires death to be fully lived out. The death of the lover himself. So that those he loves may live and may do so freely. May do so fully.
It is fitting that this movie take place in Detroit. And that Walt is a retired autoworker. The subtext here is the open road. It is freedom from oppression. It is freedom from tyranny. It is freedom to love. And the automobile is the emblem of this. It can take us wherever our heart leads us. And Walt’s Gran Torino will take Thao into the heart of adulthood, into the possibility of love, however delightful and dangerous and possibly fatal this will be.
I like this movie. It has its flaws, but I won’t go into them. Oh, I will say that one of its imperfections is a gratuitous visual effect at Walt’s death. Walt laid out dead from the Hmong gang’s bullets on the ground like Christ nailed to the cross: arms cruciform to the line of trunk and legs. Oh, Clint. We are dumb, but we aren’t that dumb. Please give us a little respect.