Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a film that further establishes Eastwood as one of the greatest Hollywood directors addressing issues of morality and ethics through the medium of film. Million Dollar Baby addressed euthanasia, and Unforgiven and Mystic River dealt with revenge in masterful ways that place the characters in the crucible of moral and ethical situations where right and wrong become obscure and the decisions characters make are never guided by black and white morality.
In Gran Torino, Eastwood takes on the issue of bigotry. The main character, Walt Kowalski, is a fair man in that his hateful prejudice and racial slurs are directed at all people of a different race, color, creed, or ethnicity equally. Throughout the film, the racial slurs flow from Walt to his neighbors, strangers on the street, and even his “so called” friends: a barber and construction worker.
What the movie intelligently avoids is a cliché transformation of Walt’s bigotry to an understanding and loving man. While a story about total transformation may be inspirational for a few moments after the credits role, its thematic significance is undermined by the fantastical notion that one could change such deep rooted hate that has grown and festered for 50 years in a matter of a few days, weeks, or even months.
Another film that deals honestly with this long, hard transformation is American History X. Here, the hate and bigotry of the main character is only transformed inside the walls of prison. While locked up, a young man’s prejudice and stereotypes are challenged and slowly broken down as he is forced to work with, eat with, and eventually understand a black man: a member of the race he has been taught to despise.
For Walt, his understanding and eventual acceptance of another group of people comes through interaction with two other characters: his Hmong neighbors, Thao and Sue. Interestingly, Thao and Sue’s actions, though antithetical, help to draw Walt out of his solitary state in the neighborhood. What is keen about the screenplay writing and Eastwood’s acting is that while Walt Kowalski’s mean spirit and dislike for Thao and Sue diminishes, his derogatory slurs toward them and their family do not. Walt may accept Sue’s invitation to come and eat with her family, but he still has the audacity to call her family “fish heads” as he stands uncomfortably in the middle of their living room.
Sue’s kindness towards Walt and her refusal to be offended by his “mean as hell” demeanor represent the ideal. Sue has courage to befriend Walt as she sees the island that he has placed himself on, and the isolated nature of his life. Sue’s tolerance is really a model of how one can bridge racial, cultural, and generational gaps.
Thao, on the other hand becomes the character Walt chooses to invest in. As we see Walt teaching Thao “how to be a man” through work, action, language, and love, a central theme of the movie is developed. Walt is a mean, cruel, and bigoted man; however, he has something of value inside of him. His mentoring of Thao, though imperfect, illustrates he has something positive to give to the world. He tries to give this knowledge to Thao; his instruction is done in his own, often racially offensive way, but ironically, both Thao and Walt benefit from it.
In many ways, Walt reminds me of Miss Dubose from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Walt, she is cruel to kids and adults alike, and full of racial hatred, but inside of her is a courage Atticus wants his kids to see. To him, that gives her value, and he wants Scout and Jem to interact with her in order observe what real courage is.
The most significant theme of the film is the message about life and death. Gran Torino begins and ends with a funeral in the same church, with the same family, with the same priest officiating. Between those deaths, we see the message of life. In the midst of the film, the same priest who officiates the funerals tells Walt: “sounds like you know more about death than life.” after Walt shares some of his stories from the Korean War. The Hmong priest echoes the Catholic priest as he tells Walt how he sees him: an empty, mean, and unhappy man. The lesson: value in life comes from relationships. Walt has none. His wife is dead, he cannot relate in any way to his two sons (they avoid even talking to him on the phone), his grandchildren have no interest in knowing him, and he is surrounded by neighbors of another culture he has chosen to hate. His life is bereft. However, there is hope. A hope found in pouring himself into Thao. This pouring of his life, like the man himself is imperfect, but nonetheless Walt allows his life to benefit another.