The Birth of a Hero – ‘Gran Torino’

Gran Torino (íd., Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Clint Eastwood has just transformed into a mythical person. With Gran Torino, one of his most personal movies, he reaches the top of the hill, from where he sits and looks back to the accidental terrain he has been crossing for a long time, since he played the role of the Man With No Name taking aim in those spaghetti westerns.

I’m ready to assume the risk of sounding a little exaggerated, but I must say that Gran Torino is an autobiographical film more than an action one. Walt Kowalsky (Clint Eastwood) is the convergence, the incarnation of every single character Eastwood interpreted during his boundless career as a filmmaker and actor. He represents the “cool” and “fresh” hero of Hollywood Golden’s Age, who is now old and full of remorses because of his turbulent past.

But we must remind ourselves that “old” and “retired” are two words that aren’t always compatible. And Kowlaksy might be aged, but he is very far from being retired, yet he seems to be constantly ready for action. His past as a soldier in Korea and as a mechanic at one of Ford’s assembly lines made he become very fond of weapons (which he uses to delimitate his space in a threatening modern world) and of cars. His 1972 Gran Torino becomes the object of desire of the Hmong gang that rules the streets of the suburban neighborhood of Detroit, and one night Thao (Bee Vang), a timid Hmong boy who happens to live next door to Kowalsky, is being forced by this gang to steal his neighbour car if he wants to be part of their “community”.

The moment when Walt hears some strange sounds coming from the garage and takes his weapon, we know that the old man’s fury is going to come to surface. But although he catches the “delinquent” in a scene marked by a chiaroscuro lighting that reflects the good and evil dichotomy of Kowalsky character, the hating towards the Hmong community surprisingly goes in the good direction. Maybe this was the only aspect of the movie that didn’t work for me; the transformation of the main character occurs to easy and with too little motivation.

A few days after the incident, he saves Thao from the hands of his malevolent cousin and his Hmong gang, by pointing his rifle to one of the attackers and telling him: “Get off my lawn. I will blow a hole in your face and sleep like a baby.” Eastwood manages to say this in such a way, that it sounds as if he meant it. At this point, some member of the audience might even ask themselves if Eastwood is a racist. And this high level of identification of the character with the person that plays it is precisely what makes the difference between a good actor and a genius.

In Kowalsky’s eyes, his sons are overweight meddler working at meaningless jobs (“My old son is doing sales. License to steal. I worked in the Ford for 50 years and he’s out there selling Japanese cars.”) and his granddaughter is a self-centered greed machine (“What the hell Is it with kids nowadays?”). This shows the current intergenerational problem nourished at the beginning of the film by the incapacity of the aged persons of understanding the new generation’s habits. But as the movie goes by, Eastwood tells us that this problem can be solved by using the cross-generational buddy formula, yet he decides to “man up” and become a friend with the diffident Thao.

Gran Torino represents a journey through the history of the United States of America. Walt’s initial attitude towards the Hmong community represents the war between the cowboys and the Indians; the transitional period, when Kowalsky becomes more permissive with his neighbors’ traditions, represents the historical period in which different races started to get along, but there still was an invisible barrier; finally, the friendship between Thao and Walt represent the Obama era, when the social status and opportunities are not being limited by the color of the skin or by the shape of  the eyes.

As for the Korean War, there is one particular sequence which reflects on the destructive consequences of any conflict. When we see Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), with the body mutilated and Kowalsky just looking at her and doing nothing, in his eyes there is a flicker that somehow says “I’m sorry for what I did in the past”. In this moment, Walt understands that war is not good, and killing people isn’t necessary. Maybe this is the cause why when he is asked at Sue’s party “What are you doing here?” he says “Good question, what I’m doing here. Hi, my name is Walt.” With this line, Kowalsky is telling us that he can only define himself with his name, and he doesn’t really know where his “place”, his “safety zone” is anymore.

Finally, Gran Torino is, as I said in the beginning, a summation of everything Clint Eastwood represents as a filmmaker and a movie star, and perhaps a farewell. At the end, lots of serious questions come up, such as responsibility, vengeance, the efficacy of blood for blood, questions that Eastwood masterfully represents in a two-hour length epic story. The mind-blowing ending of the movie reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Atlantic City”, in which he says: “Well everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Gran Torino represents the death of a legend, an American icon (Walt Kowalsky), and the birth of a new multicultural hero (Thao).

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