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Clint Eastwood. A legend in the film industry. Born on the 31st of May in 1930, he began directing in 1971 and producing in 1982. Famous for his roles in the Dollars Trilogy, the Dirty Harry films, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, his name is synonymous with masculinity. He has 7 children from 5 different women where only 2 of whom, each were at one point his wife.
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In December 2008, Gran Torino was released and distributed by Warner Brothers. The movie tells a story of Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a caucasian veteran of the Korean War. Walt is the spitting image of the generic racist American war veteran who sits outside his house with a 12 gauge shotgun firmly pointed at immigrants with a southern drawl. Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of Walt is true to this generic image albeit as the story progresses, his attitude towards his neighbours softens. Walt’s most prized possession is his Gran Torino, a classic muscle car.
The film begins with Walt Kowalski mourning silently the passing of his wife. Living alone, his two sons do not get along well with their father. Days later, Walt’s neighbour’s son, Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal his car as part of a gang initiation ceremony. Walt foils this attempt with his semi-automatic rifle from his war days. Thao’s family is grateful towards Walt’s actions that saved Thao from a life in the gang. Walt takes it upon himself to set Thao on the right path. But when Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her) is assaulted by the same gang who tried to recruit Thao, Walt is forced to take action.
Walt’s rifle from the Korean War is symbolic of his past deeds. It represents the acts of violence and aggression he perpetrated during his days of service. “Shut the fuck up! You want to know what it’s like to kill a man? Well it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal of valour for killing some poor kid that wanted to ‘just give up, that’s all.’ Yeah, some scared little gook just like you. I shot him right in the face with that rifle you were holding in there a while ago. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. You don’t want that on your soul. But I got blood on my hands. I’m soiled. That’s why I’m going it alone tonight.” Walt is a man who is tortured by his past. Walt’s Gran Torino and his dog, Daisy are the only source of happiness and comfort for him prior to him befriending his Hmong neighbours.
At the beginning of the movie, Walt’s distaste for the asian people is very apparent. He refers to them as “gooks” most of the time. However, as the film progresses, he realises that he is closer to his asian neighbours than he is to his own family. “God, I got more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled-rotten family. Jesus. Happy birthday.” At one point in the movie, Walt becomes so close to Thao’s family that he’s seen grilling some steak in his backyard with Thao, Sue and Thao’s date. Walt’s resourcefulness is apparent as he has a garage filled with tools that according to him took 50 years to put together. He sees Thao’s interest in them and gifts to him a lubricant, duct tape and a visier grip. He later goes on to to help toughen Thao up by teaching him how to “talk like a man”. Walt even goes so far as to help Thao secure a job at a construction site and purchase tools for him to kickstart his independence.
In order to show their appreciation of Walt’s help towards Thao, the local Hmong community frequently brings food to him. At first, Walt is reluctant to accept the gifts. But as they persist, he gives in after tasting and falling in love with the flavorful Hmong food. The Hmong shaman reads Walt and tells him that he is not respected by people and that he carries a heavy burden. Upon hearing this, Walt becomes visibly shaken and begins coughing blood.
Every instance that Walt was about to take aggressive action, a military themed drum beat would follow. This use of music indicated to the audience that Walt was about to undertake something important. The military drum beat also brings to mind a sense of patriotism that Walt has towards his country. This is further illustrated by the large American flag on his porch. The overall colour used throughout the movie is a dull green. This is reflective of the calm pace of the movie with the exception of the times during confrontation when it is usually dark.
Thao’s character at the beginning of the film is a passive one. He seldom talks and even when he does, he speaks with a soft tone. This can be attributed to his sister’s role as the dominant figure in the house. Thao is regarded as feminine even by his own family. Needless to say, Walt despises “Toad” as he calls him. “Yeah… Yum Yum… yeah… nice girl… nice girl, very charming girl… I talked with her… yeah. But you, you just let her walk out right out with the Three Stooges. And you know why? ‘Cause you’re a big fat pussy. Well, I gotta go. Good day, pusscake.” As the film progresses, Walt gradually succeeds in toughening Thao up. At one point, Thao stands up for himself when he encounters the Hmong gang while going home from work.
Though Thao may be weak willed, he is definitely a kind and helpful boy intent on helping others. At one point in the film, when a caucasian lady drops her groceries on the sidewalk, a group of 3 Hmong teenagers notice but do not help. Instead they make lewd gestures. Thao however rushes to aid the lady much to the surprise of Walt who was watching intently.
Some of the issues discussed in the movie are that of racism, multiculturalism and religion. In terms of racism, Walt is racist towards every non caucasian person in the film. Though he mostly keeps it to himself, sometimes his outburts contain racial slurs. Walt’s neighbourhood is also assumed to be a previously white dominant one. But as immigrants moved in, more people of other races settled down there. Particularly the Hmong people. The movie intends to show audiences that racism can be overcome by intellect. This is apparent when Walt saves Sue from some African American thugs. When Sue is in the car conversing with Walt, he tells her that she’s “alright”. From then on, the relationship between Walt and Thao’s family improves and they become close allies.
Multiculturalism is an important aspect of this film as various races can be seen and traditions of the races are also portrayed. When Walt is invited for lunch at Thao’s house for a celebration, he pats a child on her head. This act is seen as disrespectful in Hmong culture. In the scene where Sue is ambushed by the African Americans, she is seen to be dating a caucasian teen. During Walt’s visit to the doctor, in the waiting room, people from various races can be seen as well. There’s Walt, a caucasian, an African American lady, an Indian lady with a traditional dress, a presumably Mexican man, an Arabian nurse with a headdress and an asian doctor. The film intends to educate the viewers that the American landscape is fast changing where once Walt’s neighbourhood used to be predominantly White, it is a rarity to see a caucasian.
In terms of religion, Walt is a catholic though not a devout one. His take on faith is insouciant and of disdain.
Father Janovich: Why didn’t you call the police?
Walt Kowalski: Well you know, I prayed for them to come but nobody answered.
While talking to Father Janovich, he calls the priest a “young 27 year old virgin”. By the end of the movie though, he appears to reconnect with his religious roots as he attends confession.
The movie doesn’t appear to lean to either to matriarchy or patriarchy. Though the values of the different cultures are quite apparent. In the Hmong culture, a lot of family members can be seen congregating. Communication is generally open and inclusive. Whereas for the western culture as seen in Walt’s family, the viewer can see a family which is estranged and on bad terms. Walt’s sons don’t pay much attention to their father and only contact him when they want something. In terms of respect, the Hmong people generally are more respectful towards their elders. But in the case of Walt’s grandkids, the granddaughter smoked a cigarette in Walt’s house.
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There are a few film techniques used in the film that are noteworthy. When Walt is confronting the gang’s house at night towards the end of the film, an estblishing wide shot is used showing Walt approach the house. The lighting at this point is very low-key, only highlighting what the audience needs to see. Faint background noises such as a barking dog, and crickets can be heard in the distance leading the viewer to assume that the location is one which is seldom visited.
When the gang members begin talking to Walt, the camera cuts to a wide shot of him. From the houses behind him in the background, curious neighbours can be seen coming out of their rooms. In the next few moments, a few more shots of neighbours coming out of their houses can be seen to further emphasise the point that the whole scenario is being scrutinised. At this point, the gang leader draws his weapon, but Walt keeps insulting them, determined to carry out his plan unfazed. He insists on defending his neighbours. This is the point where the viewers see that deep beneath the grouchy exterior, Walt is a genuinely good man.
The movie overall was a refreshing change from the regular action films which lack depth and substance. Gran Torino has enough action to maintain the male audience attention while catering to the emotional aspect as well via good character development and storyline. The touching scenes in the film truly can impact the viewer and make them question their own attitudes towards culture and racism and doing what’s right. Where at first the viewer is antagonistic towards Walt, they come to appreciate is gruffness and empathise with him and feel genuine sadness when he sacrifices his life in the end.
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