I’m proud to say that I don’t buy music online. Even eight years ago, when I taught tenth graders, I discovered I was something of a dinosaur because I was still buying compact discs. I’m not yet hip to the resurgence of vinyl, but my principles are somewhat the same. I want to hold the package in my hands, to thumb through the liner notes while listening to a record in one sitting. I’m interested in following an artist or a band’s career. I’m interested in guest appearances; I want to know who produced the record, where it was made. I’m interested in many artists’ entire career, and I try to collect all their work. I’m looking at how individual songs fit into a larger context, not just downloading hit singles.
I engage film in a similar manner. It is important to eschew critics’ reviews and see a movie just because it was made by one of the greats. Perhaps it is true that Clint Eastwood’s forty years behind the camera have been unpredictable and varied. Yet films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby prove that Eastwood deserves our attention.
Gran Torino stands out as a rare foray into explicit theological content for Eastwood. For those of us interested in how the currency of God-shaped ideas thread their way through popular culture, read on. For those who were, like me, hoping Gran Torino would be another magisterial feather in Eastwood’s cap, prepare for disappointment. I’m unable to ignore the film’s weaknesses, which I’ll quickly brush through, but I have, as well, a few thoughts about why this film may be worth its two hours.
Here’s my working theory about Clint Eastwood’s career as a director: he is conspicuously limited by his scripts. I am sympathetic to why Eastwood may not be picky. Perfectionism is often the death of many a creative impulse. Artists must decide between quantity and quality. Eastwood’s thirty-second film is in production as I write this, so it is easy to assume that he has never believed less is more. Eastwood has a knack for finding good stories, and Gran Torino tells, without a doubt, a significant tale. It is such a good story, though, that it deserved to be told with more care and precision.
Gran Torino may well be Eastwood’s last performance in front of the camera, a decently compelling reason to see the film. In his over fifty years as an actor, Eastwood has never won an Academy Award. Despite two nominations, Eastwood’s theatrical skills provide little reason to follow his work. Clint Eastwood the Actor defines “typecast.” From his early days on TV’s Rawhide to his spaghetti westerns to Dirty Harry and all the way to Gran Torino, Eastwood the Actor is riffing on the same essential Id and Ego of the same masculine anti-hero, and he does this with enough charm and charisma that it keeps us coming back for more. However, different incarnations of this enigmatic gun-slinger are, pardon the pun, hit or miss. William Muny in 1992’s Unforgiven is a hit. Walt Kowalski in 2008’s Gran Torino is a miss.
I must observe a few overwrought mistakes in Gran Torino, and then I’ll move past my peeves. First, Hollywood has enough husky-throated tough guys. Walt Kowalski is a Korean war vet who worked on the Ford assembly line for forty years. A retired widower, alone in a big house, in a neighborhood well past its idyllic suburban prime, Walt Kowalski is facing down his demons. Eastwood doesn’t need to rake any more gravel over his voice to portray the grit-and-gruff of his character. Recall the unfortunate rasp of Christian Bale’s elocution in his most recent portrayal of Batman (we can thank Eastwood for not using computer effects to exaggerate his voice the way Christopher Nolan manipulated Bale’s). Second, Kowalski’s habit of talking to himself seems forced and unnatural. Eastwood’s got an iconic grimace—not his worst critic can argue with that. Add a wearied composure. His slow gait. Walt Kowalski’s body language communicates inner turmoil far more subtly and effectively than the affected self-narration. If Eastwood is guilty of anything in this film, it’s that he trusts rookie screenwriter Nick Schenk’s flimsy dialogue too much and his own acting ability not nearly enough.
Eastwood admirably chose to use Hmong immigrants in leading roles and as extras, and this grassroots effort might be endearing for some moviegoers. If you want to see a more convincing use of amateurs straight from the streets, make sure you see Slumdog Millionaire. So if you can get past the banal dialogue and the overall poor acting, you may find the film’s cinematic theology thoroughly refreshing. Gran Torino is a hearty serving of metanoia. This late-life conversion demonstrates that even the most grisly and wizened of us can learn all kinds of new things, most poignantly, in Jesus’ words, that no one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Walt’s two estranged sons are concerned their father will not do well to remain alone in the “old neighborhood,” as they call it, a section of Detroit now populated by Hmong immigrants. They attempt to move him to a retirement home, but Walt stubbornly hunkers down on his front porch with a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon, an American flag waving beside him as a salient reminder of his service to his country.
Father Janovich, a dough-faced, red-headed priest who promised Mrs. Kowalski in the twilight of her life that he would persuade Walt to go to confession, persists in his efforts despite Walt’s acidic resistance. Walt doesn’t think much of the church and thinks less of the priest, whom he describes as “an overeducated twenty-seven-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of old ladies who are superstitious, and promises them eternity.” On their third encounter, Father Janovich finds Walt in a better mood at the AMVET’s bar and when Walt finally agrees to sit down and talk, glossing a summary of his life, Father Janovich observes, “Mr. Kowalski, it seems that you know a lot more about death than you do about life.”
And indeed, Walt does know death. He is haunted by his wartime killings so much so that his silver Medal of Honor has become an albatross. Ironically, it seems Walt’s guilt induces his racism: he has steeled himself against his “gook” neighbors to justify his participation in the Korean War, and though he finds ample opportunity to level racial slurs in sundry directions, mixing playfully mutual jabs at his Irish and Polish peers, he saves his most volatile xenophobic epithets for others, like the Hmong who surround him. Only Sue, a brazen young Hmong, manages to penetrate his crusty outer shell. As a second-generation immigrant, she serves as an interpretive bridge between Walt’s dying version of America and the traditionalist Hmong community. Even then, it is surprising (to my mind, unbelievable) how quickly Walt softens, trying out their food, drinking their beer, and inviting them over for a barbecue. One evening Walt is roused from his house, wielding his military-issue rifle to defend Thao, Sue’s younger brother, who is the target of increasingly aggressive harassment by their cousin Spider and his gang. “I used to stack [punks] like you five feet high in Korea,” Walt snarls, “and use you for sandbags.”
[If you intend to see the movie, you may want to put this review down at this point and return to it later. There are plot spoilers below.]
These neighbors extend thanks to Walt as persistently as Father Janovich extends pastoral care. For a brief period we are able to witness the emergence of a kind of urban togetherness that transcends race and generation. Walt finds new meaning in his life. He becomes the neighborhood fix-it-man and avuncular to Thao and Sue. Walt gives Thao dating advice. He rescues Sue from sexual predators. Inevitably, the neighborly pax romana is short lived. Spider and his crew return, vengefully blasting Sue and Thao’s home in a machine gun spree. Sue is raped and beaten. The movie’s R-rating isn’t just for the strong language. Thankfully, Eastwood spares us from witnessing the violence done to Sue. What we see, which is enough, is her return home, bludgeoned, bloody, resigned in that awful way while her family encircles her with a delirious, roaring grief.
From all indications, Walt will retaliate against the gang members with violence. Here, Eastwood the Director masterfully draws us to the edge of our seats expecting retribution. If this is indeed Eastwood’s final appearance on screen, then Gran Torino serves as a yin to the yang of his most critically acclaimed film, Unforgiven. Both William Muny and Walt Kowalski have murdered before. Both men are called upon to act when women are victims of abuse. In both movies we watch to see if these men are capable of killing again. In Unforgiven the younger, over-eager gunslinger, the Schofield kid, asks, “This be Muny out of Kansas who killed women and children?” At various turns throughout Unforgiven we ask, is this the same William Muny? Is it possible murderous villains can change? In Gran Torino, we know Walt is capable of killing. Will he do it again? In Unforgiven we are shocked that the answer is, yes, William Muny can kill again. He can kill brutally. And we are equally shocked that Walt Kowalski does not choose to kill again, but, in fact, chooses to be killed.
It is clear that Eastwood designed the concluding scene of Gran Torino to inversely mirror the concluding scene of Unforgiven. In Unforgiven William Muny walks into a saloon completely surrounded; he’s on what seems to be a suicidal mission, yet he prevails against these odds by shooting down his assailants in a fluid motion of gun-shooting acrobatics. In Gran Torino, Walt stands similarly vulnerable in the street facing the gang members as they appear in doorways and windows—surrounded, outnumbered. Walt fashions his hand like a gun and mimes the ordered movement of shooting one after another just like William Muny did in the saloon. When he finally does jerk his hand out of his coat we find that Walt is drawing out a cigarette lighter, not a gun, yet the gang has already opened a merciless fire. Walt falls to the ground, his body in cruciform, blood trailing out of his sleeve and across his wrist, very likely an allusion to the stigmata.
This scene subverts the many throughout Eastwood’s acting career when characters like William Muny or Dirty Harry have taken the brutal upper hand. Gran Torino therefore serves as a commentary on the span of Eastwood’s work. Here, sacrifice, the surrender of power, and the emptying of self is the path toward salvation. In the final chapter of his life, Walt Kowalksi comes to understand that violence will only beget greater violence. His gift is ending this particular cycle. Only by his self-plotted death will the oppressors be captured, indicted, imprisoned, and Thao and Sue freed. It doesn’t seem a stretch, then, to point to the title of a similarly themed film by Wim Wender as a way of approaching this recent venture in Eastwood’s career: Gran Torino is his own End of Violence.
Joshua Banner is Minister of Music and Art at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a contributor to For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (forthcoming Spring 2010, Baker Books).