American Hero: Gran Torino and Genre Subversion
It is difficult to imagine Gran Torino without Clint Eastwood. This commentary on the American man, of action rather than words, prejudices rather than reasons and silent brooding rather than emotion, would play far worse were it not for the screen presence of the man so responsible for this image of masculinity. The Man With No Name, Dirty Harry, those screen icons which the audience for this film grew up with and perhaps hoped to emulate, are channelled through the face of Clint Eastwood, as impressive at 78 as it was fifty years earlier. His character Walt’s actions in the film confirm and reconfirm this image of a man. As he tells Father Janovich, having just threatened a local gang with a loaded rifle, he acted because no-one else would, or at least not in time. ‘Well you know,’ he says, ‘I prayed for [the police] to come but nobody answered.’ Walt is a primordial man, with a garage full of tools, a cooler full of beer and a lovingly cared-for 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he helped assemble himself on the production line. The bigotry he expresses so frankly, and so casually, can only shock those middle-class audiences who would never use the word ‘gook’ but would never live next to a Hmong family either. Walt, however, is an equal opportunities bigot, making digs at his Italian barber and Irish friend and not flinching when they in turn take aim at his Polish heritage.
The hilarious scene when Walt tries to teach Thao, the young Hmong boy he reluctantly takes under his wing, ‘how men talk to each other’ shows the dissonance between this easygoing blue-collar repartee and the world in which the new generation of American immigrants live. Walt sees no contradiction between his insulting the barber for his Italianness, his prices, or his looks, and the shock he shows when Thao, emulating the old man, tries his hand at banter by demanding a haircut from ‘you old Italian prick’. The masculine identity Walt grew up with is something that not anyone can walk into, but requires initiation. Thao takes this to heart when he meets Tim Kennedy, who gives him his first job on a construction site. Thao is unsure of himself until he remembers Walt’s advice and makes up an easy lie about getting his car repaired. Everything is set up for Walt being an action hero, a man’s man. And indeed when he menaces the Hmong gang the words ‘get off my lawn’ take on an aura as threatening as anything he said as Dirty Harry.
This image of the man of action, and its limits when it collides with reality, is the great theme of the film. For, like many of Clint Eastwood’s later films, Gran Torino does not allow the action hero trope to go unquestioned. We are closer in tone to the 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven than to Magnum Force. Over the course of the movie we realise that Walt is no white saviour, no superman who can always save the day. He keeps himself to himself not because of a cultivated air of mystique but because he prefers it that way. His reluctance to get to know his neighbours isn’t caused by the repose of the retired hero but the unexamined racism of an old man. He is a war veteran who kept his guns and who isn’t afraid to brandish them, but he is also (it is implied) dying of lung cancer brought on by his nonstop smoking (another sign of American masculinity).
Most importantly, his actions are not consequence-free. The film narrative strongly suggests – Walt certainly feels – that the drive-by shooting of the Vang Lors and rape and assault of Sue are the consequence of his attempt to defend them. It is at this point, at the climax of the movie, where the tropes break down most strongly. Thao speaks for an audience raised on action movie violence when he urges Walt to take swift revenge, to shoot the gangbangers with him at Walt’s side. This is what heroes do, after all. A hero swoops in, kills the bad guys, rights the wrongs and then is lauded to high heaven by the people who doubted him. The story repeats itself time and time again, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Dark Knight Rises. And when Walt menaces the gang to keep them away from the Vang Lors it looks like we are seeing it play out again.
But Gran Torino is not this film. Walt has already seen where his heroics got him. He refuses to go in guns blazing, and instead gets his hair cut and buys a tailored suit. He goes to confession, where Father Janovich announces that he will not allow him to go through with his presumed plan of revenge (and at this point we, the audience, may well also assume that this is Walt’s plan). Eventually, he returns home and sets off alone to confront the gang. With the neighbours watching like a saloon fight in the Old West, and with all guns on him, Walt castigates his opponents and finally makes to pull something from his jacket, where he has kept his handgun throughout the film.
And he is shot. And he dies. And in his hand is no gun, but his treasured regimental lighter.
We now finally recognise that this was Walt’s plan all along. The crux comes when he locks Thao in his basement to prevent him coming. Walt tells Thao that he does not want him to carry killing on his conscience, as he has had to. He confesses what he could not even tell the priest in the booth, that he killed a young Korean boy, ‘just like [Thao]’, who was looking to surrender. That he has not stopped thinking about it since. That there is nothing worse than killing a human being in cold blood.
This is not the moral you might expect. As a movie audience, we routinely find ourselves with Thao, hoping for violent justice to be meted out to criminals, for the law to be replaced with a .44. For it to be Clint Eastwood who delivers this moral can be even more unexpected. But this jolt is just what it takes to force us to reassess movie morality. As he did to the Western in Unforgiven, Clint now does to the action thriller. Justice is done, and there is a death, but it is not an expendable goon or a caricature villain who dies, and this death is as tragic as it could have been avoidable. Masculinity, the film suggests, is not about guns and cars and banter but about making amends for your mistakes and putting right what you can. His death recreates his murder of the young Korean, a vulnerable person gratuitously killed by a stronger force, but invested with the knowledge that he will be setting the Vang Lors free. His death is meaningful in a way that his Korean victim’s was not, being both a sacrifice and a symbolic act of resurrection.
Gran Torino is thus ultimately not about overcoming prejudice, or about personal redemption. The film is about violence and the effects of violence, in all its forms. For Walt, the man he became is inseparable from the brutality he witnessed and caused in Korea. For the Vang Lors, the deprivations, hardships and gang culture for modern-day immigrants in America slowly drags them into a violent confrontation. Indeed, the unsuccessful attempt by the Vang Lor children to avoid violence suggests that it is an inescapable part of American life.
Violence, however, is not overcome by violence. Just before the climax we have a ‘happy ending’ of sorts, with a barbecue in Walt’s garden, where he is ‘surrounded by beautiful women, good food, even Thao’. It is a Detroit Arcadia, and like all Arcadias does not last for long. This scene occurs at a pivotal moment in the film, just after Walt believes that his confrontation with the gang has got them out of the Vang Lors’ lives. It therefore occupies the place in a traditional narrative where the hero has overcome the enemy and peace reigns. Everyone is in good spirits, and the future looks bright. But we have seen already that this does not hold. Walt’s recklessness has not solved the struggle, but made it worse.
This fragile Arcadia can never be reattained. At the end of the film we are left with loose ends. Thao and Sue are not healed by Walt’s death. Walt never manages to become close to his family, even preferring the Vang Lors in his will. There is no reconciliation; all we get is a lingering shot of Thao and Daisy the dog driving the Gran Torino down the highway. The only thing that we can say is that the cycle of violence which escalated through the film has come to a temporary end with the removal of both protagonist and antagonist. But the effects of that cycle have not. Violence might fix things temporarily. It might get the girl out of a scrape, or the gang off the lawn, but it does so only to beget more and worse violence. Walt’s failure throughout is to believe he can solve a violent problem with violent means. It is only when he finally rejects this way of doing things that he finally manages to free his friends from their enemies, and does so at a great cost. The final inversion in a film of inversions is this: in Walt’s heroic showdown he refuses to shoot – even to arm himself – and allows himself to be killed. And, as it has been observed, greater love has no man than that.