I had no idea how deeply I would be affected by this film until the night I saw it, and then I couldn’t get to sleep until around 4 in the morning. And I have never suffered from insomnia before!
I’ve long admired Clint Eastwood, going back to his days as Rowdy Yates on the television show, “Rawhide.” From “Hang ‘Em High” to “Unforgiven,” and his days as Dirty Harry on the streets of San Francisco and New Orleans, Clint has always been both a “man’s man” and a “woman’s man,” something that is not easy for an actor (or a director) to pull off. In his role as “Walt Kowalski,” a bigoted and recently widowed Korean War veteran who is particular to Pabst beers and an endless supply of cigarettes, Clint embraces this hard-edged Polack in such a way that the viewer is always pulling for him. Even when you are gasping at the racial slurs he tosses at his Hmong neighbors, you know he is doing it out of emotional pain. The man just lost his wife; in addition to that, he is a combat veteran, who has probably been suffering with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) since 1952 when he earned a Medal of Valor.
The film was shot in Detroit, and from the minute “Gran Torino” began, I was thrust back into my childhood on family visits to my grandparents’ home. They lived in a neighborhood like Walt Kowalski’s, and in a house very similar. Their garage was tucked deep into the backyard, like Walt’s. My grandfather and father both spent 50 years collectively in the auto industry, and like Walt, my father always shunned the idea of any car that was not “American-made.” The church where Walt and his family attend the funeral of his wife looks exactly like the one in downtown Detroit where my family used to go to midnight Mass every Christmas Eve.
Walt has two sons with whom he shares nothing in common. His granddaughter (Dreama Walker) is a royal brat who texts her friends during the funeral of Walt’s wife,and then later that day when he catches her smoking a cigarette in the garage, she asks him who’s going to get the Gran Torino when he dies.
The “redemption” of Walt has its inauspicious beginning when the young priest who eulogizes at Walt’s wife’s funeral (played by Christopher Carley), pays a visit to the grieving widower and chats with him about life and death. Father Jablonsky says that he promised Walt’s wife he would ask to hear Walt’s confession. Their relationship is a real tug of war because Walt says he only went to church because of his wife and now that she’s gone he has no interest in it, nor in a 27-year-old boy-priest who knows nothing of life or death. Still, over the next few weeks, Father Jablonsky persists, and their verbal jousts propel the film forward.
One day Walt is on his porch to witness a local Hmong gang try and force the neighbor’s son, Thao (Bee Vang) to join them. There is a tussle on the lawn, and when the group cross over onto Walt’s front yard, that’s it. Walt intervenes and the trajectory of his life takes a subtle shift. He forms a bond with his precocious neighbor, “Sue” (Ahney Her) who knows how to stand up to him and charm him. (A few Pabsts under his belt help in this.) Sue is the one who mediates between Walt and her brother, Thao, who had tried to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino as an initiation gang rite. Thao is not cut out for gang membership, and he soon gets under Walt’s skin the way Sue has. At one point, after Sue has forced him to come over to her family’s home for a Hmong feast on Walt’s birthday, Walt observes that he has had more fun with these “gook neighbors” than with his own family.
What happens in the end is not entirely unexpected, and I will not ruin it for those of you who have not seen the film. But what a treat to observe how the neighbors he once loathed become his truest and most unexpected “comrades at arms.”
I broke up at the very last scene as the credits rolled. It was a view of Lakeshore Drive by the yacht club – a destination to which I used to ride my bicycle as a girl, and where I would sit down on the lawn gazing at the lake and contemplating my future. It was my fervent desire to become a writer and live in California, where I would meet my soulmate. My dream came true. Wow. I suppose the magic of Clint is that he brought that realization to the forefront of my mind. Thank you, Clint Eastwood. Thank you, Walt Kowalski. Thank you, Detroit. Thank you, California.