directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk
starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahner Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe, John Carroll Lynch, Chee Thao
A crotchety old racist laments the incursion of Hmong residents in his neighborhoods. Everywhere he looks he is confronted with evidence that the codified, white world he once knew has been essentially eradicated by the new immigrant population.
Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) loathes all of the Hmong peoples that have moved into his neighborhood. He despises them and refuses to move out of the neighborhood he has called home for a great number of years. He laments the state of the modern world and wishes things could return to their pristine, all white state. He looks around and all he sees is an incursion of the “gooks” he confronted during his tenure in the Korean War. He is under siege and it is coming at him from all sides.
Clint Eastwood delivers an astonishingly tempered performance as a character whose rough edges slowly soften; Walt is initially grim-faced and reticent. Gradually, his face registers pleasure and excitement. Eastwood captures the slow transformation with delicacy and great finesse. There are few things more resonate in film than the lines on Eastwood’s face. They tell the viewer that this man has experienced much of what constitutes living and that his tales are vast and imaginative.
This film explores the death of whiteness and the difficulty it faces in attempting to protect itself from outside forces intent on wholly quashing it. Walt is a throwback to a different age where his neighborhood was entirely white and his prejudices really had no opportunity for expression. He knew his place and was comfortable with what he experienced. He worked hard making cars at the Ford factory and had established himself as a trusted, honorable man in the community. Then, however, the mass incursion of Hmong arrived and gradually everyone moved out but him. He is steadfastly hanging on to the old ways because he doesn’t want to admit a total capitulation. It’s the old soldier in him that refuses to allow him to give in and give up. So, he stays on, despite the increasing levels of discomfort which meet him whenever he leaves his house.
The film opens with the funeral of Walt’s wife. Here Walt witnesses an example of something else that grieves him. He sees his grand-niece Ashley saunter into the service with her navel pierced and her midriff exposed. It is more than bad taste. It is disrespectful, something that Walt decries about the youth of today.
Walt’s greatest adversary in the film comes in the form of Father Janovich (Carley), a man who seems perpetually to be searching for answers but whose religious views Walter just cannot stomach. Father Janovich wants Walt to go to confession because he clearly sees a pain in Walt and he assumes that it can be remedied by the act of unburdening his transgressions. Walt scoffs at the notion even though he is carrying around with him a considerable amount of guilt for his actions during the war. The priest refuses to back down and gradually begins to gain Walt’s confidence in the matter.
When new neighbors move in next door, Walt is necessarily chagrined. It’s just another example of what has gone terribly wrong and he resigns himself to his circumstances while vocalizing to himself his great disdain. Yet he is unable to avoid interaction which begins when his neighbor Thao tries to steal his Gran Torino to impress a gang. Walt apprehends the boy with a shotgun and lets him go. Then after Thao upsets the gang they return to his house and try to abduct him. Walt responds to the fracas, not because he wants to protect Thao, but because the fighting has spilled over onto his lawn. Still, his actions prompt the entire community of Hmong to reward him with food and plants that they place on his porch and steps. Walt cannot understand the meaning of their generosity at first because he rightfully feels that he didn’t do anything to deserve it. His actions were strictly in the spirit of self-preservation yet they were interpreted as heroic. Walter knows heroism and he realizes the circumstances that foster it. His actions do not warrant such grandiose gestures especially from a community of people who cause Walter such continuous grief merely by their proliferation and continuance.
Walter is an equal opportunity racist as evidenced by his confrontation with a trio of oversexed black males who are sizing up Thao’s sister Sue (Her) as a probable rape victim. He refers to them as “spooks” before he shoves a shotgun in their face and escorts Sue home. It is this gesture that spawns a friendship between Sue and Walt. Most of this is at her dogged insistence because she’s determined to melt Walt’s harsh exterior and it works after a fashion.
The key to this film comes in Walt’s discovery that his neighbors are not the same people who he fought during the Korean War. He begins to see them simply as people with really good food who are merely trying to establish themselves in the same way he did fifty years ago. This doesn’t altogether alter Walt’s basic outlook regarding the other. It’s an instance where one allows a certain degree of lapsing to occur when it comes to individuals one has actually gotten the chance to experience on their terms, as they actually live. This doesn’t necessarily alter the basic assumptions being made but it does alleviate some of the tensions Walt is experiencing in the neighborhood.
After Thao tries to steal Walt’s car he is punished by his parents who force him to work for Walt. In doing so Thao demonstrates both that Hmong have integrity and can work hard and that young people aren’t entirely worthless. We see Walt taking Thao under his wing and providing him with useful, practical knowledge that enriches the boy and allows Walt to share his vast storage of knowledge to someone who is willing to listen. Walt’s two sons seem only interested in getting Walt into a home and there is a grave disconnect between them and Walt. In one devastating scene Walt calls his son Mitch (Haley) is a wistful, fragile mood. He clearly just wants to be close to his son but Mitch cuts him off because of concerns he feel are more pressing. It’s a terribly sad scene played beautifully by Clint Eastwood who captures the hurt Walt feels expertly.
Walt is indicative of the ethos of hard work and capacity for creating a viable life that is both necessary and complete. He toiled for forty years at a plant assembling cars. He knows what it means to build one’s life up brick by brick and this is made clear by his collection of tools that Thao marvels at.
The performances in this film are all supremely effective. As mentioned Clint Eastwood gives us a man of infinite complexities who is nevertheless uncomplicated in his essential worldview as the film opens. His trials are psychological and emotional and he has been living with grave decisions he was forced to make as a soldier. Eastwood is decisive and forthcoming in this film. Walt is the kind of man who shakes one’s hand with vigor while looking one dead in the eye. He says you can tell a lot by how a man shakes your hand and there was a time when this observation was actually applied. Much of the joy in this film comes in watching how Eastwood moves. His body expresses itself in deliberate, elegant movements. Christopher Carley is impressive as Father Janovich. He’s grounded, solid and immovable in this film. One believes this character has the strength of his convictions and that he honestly cares about bringing about change in people’s lives. Bee Vang captures his character’s initial meekness and his gradual evolvement to a boy of legitimate strength and vitality. Ahney Her is vivacious and wholly delightful in this film. Sue’s boundless energy is a perfect counterpoint to Walt’s severity.
Overall, this film tells an exceedingly compelling story that is both poignant and decisively realistic. It’s a story that is ably told by a master who knows how to get the best out of his actors. Each of the principals in this film come together to create a lasting piece of great beauty that will remain with us, in our memories, for many years to come. The film deals with issues that continue to plague us and will so unless we are able to finally actualize common denominators between peoples in this country. Walt begins the film solidly expressing racist views that reduce several ethnic groups to gross stereotypes. He is fearful and cannot fathom why his entire neighborhood has been infested with so many of them. Yet he doesn’t want to abandon his experiences to a foreign horde of invaders. He doesn’t want to give up his place in the world despite the incursion of so many odd looking people with their peculiar ceremonies and rituals. Yet, he is brought into the strange new world and actually likes what he sees. It is mostly the environment that pleases him as well as his connections with the kids who act like a conduit between him and the elders in the family although the grandmother (Thao) continues to abhor him. Walt lives his life facing a huge brick walk that slowly crumbles to reveal a window from which he can look out and see a different kind of world from the one he is accustomed to.