Gran Torino is a humble movie that took less than a month to film. The script is surprisingly stiff and relies on cardboard prototypes of ethnic family bonds and white suburban distance to achieve its emotional impact. But due to several endearing performances and Clint’s masterful delivery, the film is meaningful, bittersweet, and American in its soul.
Walt Kowalski coughs up blood between sips of Pabst and is physically humiliated in old age. What he lacks in muscle fiber he makes up for in vitriol against the world.
Beaten-down Thao (Bee Vang) and dragon lady Sue (Ahney Her) move in next door. Sue’s plucky frankness and Thao’s willingness to be influenced by the Philip Roth-ian Great Man of Walt eventually win over the reluctant old Polack in equal amounts.
American film goers are familiar with the urban hard-man Dirty Harry, arguably Clint Eastwood’s most iconic character. Though the Dirty Harry movies look a whole lot like one of them dime-a-dozen cop-flicks of our day, I’d say Dirty Harry as a character is conflicted like an O.G. Jason Bourne, but tougher, more brazen and more American. Harry and Bourne are two men against the world in their quest for justice and truth; in the process they are either alienated from everyone or they alienate themselves.
The forces of Law and Order are no more than red tape for Dirty Harry; the law’s strong arm is too restrained and the courts are simply too slow to effectively deal with all the evil abounding in the world. So Dirty Harry executes his own cowboy justice in a world gone all soft.
Now, my big thesis when writing this reflection was going to say that Gran Torino shows Dirty Harry, this time in the body of Walk Kowalski, coming to peace with the powers that be. But when searching for various photos of Clint holding a firearm, I came upon the salon.com review of the film, which says, ” The ending is a too carefully calculated apologia for Dirty Harry.” I was disappointed to see someone else coming to this conclusion so dismissively, so now I really must elucidate further.
When the defenseless Thao gets bullied by the neighborhood’s Hmong gangsters, Clint thrills audiences by pulling out a shotgun and pointing it right at one of the hoodlum’s heads. The movie demands respect for the man with a gun; on one hand it glorifies manly violence by portraying Walt as a legitimate threat and a figure who terrifies even the toughest of young gangstas. But the other hand takes away this respect when we learn to see Walt as a dying and bitter old man.
Walt is simultaneously tough and pathetic, and for the majority of the movie the audience is pulled into the Dirty Harry tug-of-war. Indeed, it asks us, “Is vigilantism the only true justice?”
If Salon thinks Gran Torino is a “calculated apologia,” they would be implying the answer to my questions would be “yes,” for Dirty Harry and “no,” for Gran Torino.
But let’s establish this: In neither film are we supposed to respect or trust the police. In both films we are drawn by Clint’s sharp-dart eyes, quick tongue and old testament sense of justice.
In the end, sure, Walt lets the police be the actors of justice.
But is it only because he’s old? Were Walt’s world a different shape–were there fewer AK47s on Detroit streets, were he a little less decrepit, were death less near–would he have sacrificed himself, or would he have assembled a few like-minded vigilantes, driven to the gangstas house and had a good old fashioned shoot out? Is Clint suggesting that old age forces old men to come to terms with law and order out of necessity, or is he suggesting that old men come to this conclusion because it’s the right one?