I never thought I’d laugh so hard just from seeing an old guy grunt.
Clint Eastwood gave me good comedy like only Clint Eastwood can. In the movie Gran Torino, he plays Walt Kowalski, an old-school war veteran with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He can’t relate to his sons or grandchildren (who don’t care a lick about him anyway), and all he does to the new Asian neighbors next door is scowl, grunt, and spew racist names at them.
All this brings heavy laughs at moments, but Gran Torino is no comedy. It probes deep themes.
On the surface, the movie appears to be about racism and reaching across culture barriers. Walt thinks that he has nothing in common with the Hmong neighbors next door, but this starts to change after a few run ins with local thugs. Through no initiative of his own, Walt ends up befriending young Thao, who early in the movie attempts to steal his prized car.
The movie does deal with racism, but that is a penultimate theme. Gran Torino’s two biggest foci are on Thao’s venture into maturity and manhood and fixing brokenness.
In the beginning, Thao’s grandmother complains, “who will be the man of the house?” After a male relative mentions the young boy, the best encouragement she can offer (In front of Thao, no less. One can imagine how emasculating it was to hear these words.) is, “No way…no way. He only does what his sister tells him to do. Look at him!” He is quite socially awkward, has trouble standing up for himself, and refuses to look others in the eye.
After the pair find themselves linked together against their wills, Walt becomes a reluctant mentor of sorts to Thao. He teaches Thao about fixing things, finding a job, wooing the ladies, and “men talk.” Through all this, the young boy acquires a voice and confidence. For example, when Walt solicits his help in lifting a refrigerator from the basement, Thao insists that he gets the heavier portion of the job. After Walt insinuates otherwise, Thao puts him in his place, saying defiantly, “You asked me to help you! Either I lift it at the front or I’m outta here!” This surprises the old buzzard, but he falls in line.
Walt’s ideal of masculinity is flawed in spots (For example, when he takes Tao to the barber to learn how to “talk like a man,” the first thing you see in the shop, even before you see the barber’s face, is a page out of a porn magazine.), but he gives something the young boy desperately needs. The women, though they love him very much, cannot teach Thao to be a man. The other males in the neighborhood are, for some reason, unwilling or unable to step in.
This movie underscores an unfortunately controversial truth: men are necessary. Without a strong man mentoring Thao, he would either remain in his passive state, or become a predator with the gang thugs in the neighborhood. In fact, Walt unknowingly intervenes at the exact moment when Thao faces such a temptation. Were it not for the Vet’s initiative, the kid would have become another blight on the neighborhood.
Only a man like Walt could stand up to the bullies and stare them down. He had the chutzpah to give them a bloody nose. The gang thugs would not listen to Sue’s demands to leave them alone; even though she was one tough cookie, she was not speaking their language.
The last scenes show another necessary aspect of manhood: self-sacrifice. This is the most important lesson Thao learns from the dying Walt.
Walt is a flawed man. That is an understatement. He is adept at fixing things, though. Whether its a leaky faucet or broken ceiling fan, his acquired knowledge and skill comes in handy to those in the neighborhood. He starts out fixing the physical aspects of the area, but soon finds himself attempting to fix something he’s far less knowledgeable about; human beings. This is a venture that cannot be done via drive-by. His sons and grandchildren think it can, but look at how their lives turned out.
No. Fathering hearts is something that takes significant time, energy, and sacrifice. Much like taking care of a prized Gran Torino, it must be nurtured and cultivated. This is the key to Thao’s growth, Walt’s transformation, and his budding relationship with the community around him.
In the end, Walt becomes a man that no one, not even himself, thought he could be; this is the beauty and gift of a life of sacrifice.
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