Gran Torino

As Gran Torino breaks down the iconic Eastwood Movie, it recalls The Searchers, another timely evocation of collective wrongheadedness and terrible legacies.

Gran Torino

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Cory Hardrict, Brian Haley, Brian Howe, Dreama Walker, Christopher Carley
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-02-20 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2008-12-12 (Limited release)
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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.