Clint Eastwood, USA / Germany / Australia, 2008
Viewed on Blu-ray, Aug. 28
Gran Torino is a mixed bag in every possible way. It’s certainly admirable to give some visibility (to the tune of a $100 million plus gross!) to the little-known Hmong people, a semi-nomadic minority group from Southeast Asia who became refugees in certain pockets of the US, such as Minnesota and Michigan (the latter portrayed here) and Sacramento (where worked alongside several Hmong people) because they helped us in the Vietnam War (in Cambodia mostly).
The trouble is, the two main Hmong actors, both amateurs, are pretty terrible, although they certainly have their charm. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but an IMDB commenter (I know, you can find insight anywhere) did point out that Clint Eastwood’s one-take ethos (the featurette on the disc includes many testaments to how good Eastwood is at coming in under budget) probably didn’t do these teenaged neophytes any favors. Perhaps Eastwood was content knowing that his screen presence would be effective, as always (the snarling in particular is completely over-the-top and yet completely justified and, well, awesome), leaving the Hmong kids to fend for themselves.
Much has been made of how race is portrayed in this picture. Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, even taught me a few new ethnic slurs (while not in the habit of using them, I previously believed that I was familiar with all or most of them), and while his change-of-heart is inevitable, it is not, at any point, accompanied by an alteration in his dialog. Perhaps what’s most interesting are the toothless ethnic insults he casuaully lobs at his two white friends (one Italian, the other Irish), who respond in kind, although they seem to be playing along more than anything.
It’s clear that Asians (generally lumped together under one slur or another) are something else altogether for Walt and even his friends (one scene, in which the threat of violence is involved, makes this division explicit), but the gradual revelation of how Walt has always engaged with his fellow “white ethnics” makes you realize that his gradual rapprochement with his Hmong neighbors is actually part of a pattern in his life. Walt is a Korean War veteran, and his history of violent conflict with Koreans (consistently equated with Hmong) does present something of a stumbling block to good relations with the Hmong, but of course, the plot allows him a way around that by placing him in conflict with the Hmong gangsters.
Beyond this point, my post includes spoilers. Click below if you’ve seen it, or if you don’t care about being spoiled.
My biggest problem with this film doesn’t really apply to race. While some on IMDB have interpreted this as a thumb in the eye of PC-happy liberals, I am actually impressed that Eastwood refrained from bashing people who take a less, shall we say, overtly belligerent approach to the “Other.” The priest might seem to be the well-meaning liberal, but he turns out to be surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic, despite Walt’s initial hostility. Walt’s family is scum (of course that’s partly his fault, something he eventually acknowledges), and we’re led to believe they don’t engage in the kind of verbal bigotry that Walt is so fond of, but neither are they positioned as “liberals” or “tolerant,” something particularly apparent in their glares at the Hmong teens during the funeral at the end.
No, my biggest problem is one relating to gender, and that will wait until the next post