It's a Vietnam Thing
The thing that haunts a man most is what he isn’t ordered to do.
—Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)
Most days, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) sits on his porch in Detroit and exchanges furious glares with his neighbor, an old Hmong woman known as Grandma (Chee Thao). He talks to his dog and drinks beer from a cooler, she rocks and mutters in subtitles (“Why don’t you strut away, you dumb rooster?”), both equally determined to keep the bad guys from coming inside. The fact that they see in one another exactly those bad guys rather complicates their sunset years.
At the start of Gran Torino, Walt has plenty to be mad at. Attending the funeral of his beloved wife, he’s beset by disrespectful antics by his kids and their kids: close-ups show the granddaughter’s pierced bellybutton (revealed by her midriff top), the grandson’s Lions’ jersey, and the daughter-in-law’s rolling eyes. His sons start grousing about how to sell the house and get dad to a retirement home, as well as their general embarrassment that he’s still “living in the ‘50s.” Walt sees all, standing at the front of the church, his eyes blazing and his jowls pulsing. A tight shot makes something like a visual joke: Eastwood’s famous jaw, set to show his teeth while he literally growls. It’s a moment fierce, goofy, and strangely charming, Dirty Harry simultaneously commemorated and deconstructed.
It’s not long before you learn that Walt’s dissatisfaction has not evolved in a vacuum. He’s not precisely an affectionate or articulate dad, having left the parenting to the dearly departed, not to mention the household management and social interactions. Now that she’s gone, he’s bereft but also really pissed off about the diurnal details confronting him. He’s got to shop, cook, even do laundry. Walt can’t know it, of course, though it’s plain for you to see: his current existential dilemma is all about Dirty Harry, that is, definitions of masculinity, aggression, and self-identity.
In sorting out these notions, Walt finds himself revisiting his past unexpectedly. Looking from his porch over at the Hmong family chopping heads off chickens (“Damn barbarians!”), he’s reminded of his experiences during the Korean war, when he knew without thinking much what it meant to be a man, a righteous white American man who killed “gooks” and “zipperheads” in the name of freedom, democracy, and his country. Now, he finds himself thinking in spite of himself, especially as he watches what’s going on next door.
Specifically, he’s watching the old woman’s grandson, Thao (Bee Vang), try his best not to be caught up in the gangbanging practiced by his cousins. They and their Mexican counterparts, sworn enemies, all question his manhood (he likes to read), impugn his “woman’s work” (he likes to garden) and insist the only way to be protected is to join up. To that end, they insist, he must be initiated by stealing the old white guy’s car, his precious 1972 Gran Torino. It’s a convenient way to get Thao and Walt in the same space, not to mention in a state of masculine contest. Walt spots the flashlight in his garage, grabs his M-1 rifle and heads out, pointing the thing at Thao, reduced to a sprawling, frightened kid, fearing for his life. Growling again and pondering his next move, Walt slips, the gun goes off, and the would-have-been thief takes off, leaving behind the old man, flailing on the cold cement floor, pained and weary.
Walt and Thao’s next encounter skews another way. Bothered by a commotion spilling into his front yard, Walt stomps over to the bangers trying to drag the kid off, trying to punish him for the failed initiation. It’s soon a comedy, as you anticipate the tormenters’ comeuppance. “We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea and use you for sandbags,” Walt snarls at a suddenly panicky troublemaker. “Get off my lawn!”, he adds for good measure, as the boys are falling over each other to do just that. (This scene is only the start of Walt’s relentless rage against punks; it’s as if he’s Harry Callahan re-meeting every offensive minority stereotype who rolled through his 20th-century franchise, from black gangsters on the corner to Latinos in lowriders; he takes every one out at the knees, but his self-righteous bullying is revealed as such.)
Thinking he’s done with the whole woeful business, Walt is dismayed the next morning when Thao’s family starts coming by, one by one, leaving gifts on his front steps, grateful that he saved their young man from a dark and thuggish life. No matter his protests, the offerings gifts keep coming: dishes heaped with food, plants with ribbons, traditional ornaments, and, at the urging of his mother Vu (Brooke Chia Thao) and sister Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s offer to labor for his rescuer.
Inspired by the women, Walt assigns Thao assorted chores and yardwork, and their relationship evolves as you expect: the fatherless boy comes to revere his grumpy stand-in and Walt comes to care for the hardworking, honorable “chink.” If some insights are clumsy (Walt tells his mirror image that he has “more in common with [Thao] than my own sons”), others are understated and even revelatory. Thao notes the complicated shared history of Americans and the Hmong (pointing out, for example, the promises and betrayals during the Vietnam war) and eventually, Walt shares his own combat stories, the horrors he saw and committed in Korea.
The intersection of Thao and Walt’s stories exposes the masculine pathologies that bleed across cultures. In the melting pot of Detroit, Walt’s aggression, his racism, are reflected in the behavior of the boy gangs, whose motherland legacies are reshaped in their American settings and amplified by their automatic weapons, but they’re not different fundamentally from Walt’s own tribalism and belligerence (which are, in turn, drawn from Eastwood’s other conventionally macho “outsiders”).
Deciding Thao needs to “man up,” Walt and a buddy barber (John Carroll Lynch) train him in the art of man-talking, brute ethnic slurring as signs of affection and respect. Thao’s awkward mouthing of furious phrases exposes the inanity of the white guys’ verbal cruelties and by extension their proprietary, self-defining acts of violence. Walt sees only the emergence of a newly butch student, and celebrates Thao’s new job on a construction site by taking him shopping at the hardware store. The protégé‘s new tape measure and tool belt are emblems of his new manhood, his entry into a club that Walt’s salesmen sons have rejected in favor of suburban softness.
Walt’s own moral education is more complicated, providing a satisfying twist on the more conventional lessons offered in Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby. Like Eastwood’s characters in both these films, Walt wages an ongoing battle with institutional religion, which he regards as dishonest. Here the embodiment is the red-headed Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who has promised Walt’s devout wife he’ll get her husband to confession (“I confess,” Walt hisses, “that I have no desire to confess to a boy that’s just out of the seminary”). The conflict with the “padre” offers glosses on Walt’s increasing involvement with Thao and Sue, his efforts to protect them from the gangsters and seek revenge that at first seems worthy. When at last Walt confides in the pink-faced Janovich, it’s not out of faith in God, but out of deep, disturbing self-recognition.
As Gran Torino breaks down the iconic Eastwood Movie, it recalls The Searchers, another timely evocation of collective wrongheadedness and terrible legacies. Almost unbearably (but stoically, of course), Walt questions his most basic assumptions, his own abiding fear, odium, and disrespect of “them.” And as he comes to see himself in Thao, Walt at last sees clearly.