by HELEN GEIB
Gran Torino, the new film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, opens at the funeral Mass for Walt Kowalski’s beloved wife of many years, Dorothy. Dorothy is always present in her husband’s remembrance, but Walt’s grief will be eased by the unexpected friendships he builds with the Hmong-American teenage siblings who live next door.
Walt (Eastwood) is a retired Detroit autoworker living in the old neighborhood in the house he and Dorothy shared and raised their family in. His only companion now is his old dog, Daisy. Walt passes the time drinking Pabst in the front porch swing while Daisy contentedly slumbers next to him. He looks out and sees a neighborhood in decline: an influx of immigrants; properties falling into disrepair; disrespectful young people. He has two sons who are wrapped up in their own lives and four rotten grandkids. In temperament, he is irascible and cantankerous. In short, Walt is a lonely curmudgeon.
The first person to break through his shell is his neighbor, Sue (Ahney Her). Sue is a confident and goodnatured young woman more than able to hold her own against Walt; also a very kind person, she introduces him to the Hmong people and their customs and draws him into her community. Sue lives with her younger brother Thao (Bee Vang) and their widowed mother and grandmother. While Walt feels an almost immediate kinship with Sue, his friendship with the shy, unhappy Thao develops slowly.
Walt’s relationship with Thao– friends, mentor and pupil, quasi-familial- is at the film’s emotional center and the medium for one of its main themes, defining masculinity in contemporary America. Thao is adrift in an ethnic community that seems to offer only two alternatives: adhere to an old-world traditionalism that insists on rigidly defined gender roles and refuses cultural integration, or join his generational contemporaries who have acculturated to American life by forming a Hmong street gang and are on the fast track to becoming career criminals.
Walt offers an alternative model of the traditional values and modes of discourse of blue-collar America. In a series of sometimes touching, sometimes comical scenes, he gives Thao practical lessons in how to fix things around the house and how to talk to middle-aged, white, working class men, goads him into asking out the girl he has a crush on, and buys him the tools he needs for his first job.
The Hmong gang that wants alternatively to recruit or punish Thao pushes to the forefront another element of the equation: a man’s responsibility and capacity in protecting his family from harm. Capitalizing on Eastwood’s filmography, the film’s marketing emphasizes Walt’s belligerence and borderline vigilantism. The marketing is, as is so often the case, misleading. The violence inherent in gang culture and the terrible pain it inflicts on families and communities is a significant, but not dominant plot thread, and in Gran Torino is examined within the context of the film’s dual preoccupations with manhood and mortality.
Gran Torino is not without flaws. The script and direction have a propensity to underline points that have already been made. The film takes on a lot (this review is far from an exhaustive summary); it has weight and substance, but it also feels a trifle overstuffed. Happily the flaws are decisively outweighed by the appealing and well-developed main story, interesting themes, and fine performances by Eastwood, Vang, and Her.