I finally saw Gran Torino. After waiting for so long I figured it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Anticipating some anticlimactic, less ethnic Boondock Saints, I resigned myself to catch up with Clint Eastwood’s revered vision. Despite myself, I became totally absorbed. The film was ethnic, religious, and more interesting than I’d even heard.
Archetypes in film are usually boring. I can’t stand it when a movie is full of flat, one-dimensional characters doing exactly what the viewer expects them to do. At first I was distracted by the number of one-dimensional characters in Gran Torino. Set in a ghetto at the edge of a Ford factory town, it’s a perfect illustration of ethnic and temporal clash to characterize America’s history.
Perhaps the setting is even more perfect now, with Bud falling to inBev and GM falling to Congress. In the very first scene the main character buries his wife. A laughably archetypical young, Irish priest drones about life and death while Clint Eastwood rolls his eyes heavenward, his estranged family unsurprisingly irreverent.
All the elements are there. It’s so expected it’s annoying. Ethnic stereotype. Check. Industrious old man irritated that his young family doesn’t get it. Check. It’s about family, it’s about America, it’s about the working class in fringe neighborhoods that have always made this country strong. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a “Polack” who would’ve been among the first wave of Ford-strong workers. See also his hair dresser, a machismo Italian Kowalski accuses of being “half-Jew” when he charges a wopping (ahem) $10 for his monthly haircut belongs to that same storied first generation.
Every element in this movie is one-dimensional, and yet . . . it’s perfect. Eastwood’s character rejects the Irish priest, charged by his late wife with the task of “taking special care of this sheep” in his “flock” of parishioners, when the priest begins hounding him to confess. When pressed, Kowalsk shares a beer with the priest, wet behind the ears next to Eastwood’s hard-lined complexion. He explains that the “overeducated, 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold superstitious old women’s hands and make promises he can’t keep” knows nothing about life and death. Kowalski spent three years killing (even, we later learn, when not so ordered) in Korea. He calls the priest “Padre,” rather than the deferential, traditional “Father.”
Only later, after a few ethnic in’s and out’s, does Kowalski accept a religious touch. Evidently it’s not that he rejects religion; he only needs a father figure, as do we all, to provide spiritual guidance. A Hmong shaman “reads” him (predictably) exactly right. Kowalski is stunned, coughs up blood, shares solace and rice alcohol with a member of that family, and his fatherly bond is sealed.
Gran Torino is not about the characters. Each player is only a vehicle for Eastwood’s point. Indeed, while the characters are flat, the acting is rather good. The youngest Hmong cousin, haunted by a family gang and first exposed to Kowalski when he tried to steal the title car, is young and weak (Kowalski later calls him a “puss-bag”) at first. He’s smart but unfocused—the ghetto offers little in the way of goals. We pretty clearly see the kid grow under Kowalski’s influence. The former soldier teaches “Toad” to paint a house, hammer a roof, tend to a garden. He takes him to see the barber and teaches him to “talk like a man” (NB: the barber is reading a 1935-style porn when the boys walk in, with women stretched out like the silhouettes on truck mudflaps). Kowalski rags on Toad to date a beautiful Hmong girl (“Yum Yum”) who keeps giving him the eye.
In short, Kowalski imparts self respect through productive actions. He’s kind of a Hank Hill (from King of the Hill) in the gratuitously-stereotypical neighborhood. He finds himself, like a serendipitous vigilante, in a position to save the Hmong Su from a black gang. Su sasses the thugs for calling her a “bitch and a ho in the same sentence—way to be a stereotype.” Kowalski finds himself a role model for a huge Asian ethnic group with historically weak male role models (“girls go to school; boys go to jail”), and a savior where no one else can stop the intrafamiliar gangs that seem to pervade the ghetto.
The ending is somewhat suprising. We know that Kowalski faces painful treatments for the rest of his life to eradicate whatever evil caused the thick blood in his cough. He finally confesses, spilling three sins that tarnish the very soul of a man with integrity, but elicit only a “that’s it?” from the ghetto priest. He buys a suit, retools his will, and has long-since accepted that his “family” are the Hmong he respects, not the second-generation Toyota-drivers (predictably) pushing Dad to a home. What’s surprising isn’t that he dies, but that the ending preserves the flat, illustrative essence of each character while managing to weave them perfectly in as coherent a finish as the rest of the film.
The movie isn’t surprising, but it’s still beautiful. We have lost so much of the integrity once the heart of the American dream. Those of us who wail about politics cite anecdotal evidence so far removed from personal experience that we might as well be opining on the European Union.* I loved this film for taking one-dimensional archetypes easy to understand and weave a story around them that’s faceted, intelligent, more profoundly true than merely political, and . . . perfect.
Where Boondock Saints made me want to go vigilante on gangsters’ asses, this movie made me want to tend to the margins. I wanted to go home and fold clothes haphazardly tucked into the drawer. I wanted to wash my car, care for my things, perhaps consider a victory garden. I wanted to drop the multi-dimensional pretexts that detract from integrity and simply do things right.
This movie reminded me that the American Dream with which I’m so obsessed isn’t about making it big (though it’s about that too), but rather about making it. It’s only the sum total of tucked hospital corners, waxed hubcaps, crossed t’s and dotted i’s that make a college education, a marriage (save Kowalski’s indiscretion in 1968 with Betty Jablonski at a company Christmas party), and a life.
So in the end the movie is—predictably!—about life and death. All the usual elements are there: religion, intrigue, ethnic warfare and paternal protection. Kowalski finds purpose in his last months, and, after a life well-lived, finally finds something for which he’s ready to die. Nothing about this film is particularly surprising. But the skill behind weaving these flat elements is impeccable. There are worse things than living with purpose and integrity, and in the end finding the story to be perfect.