I tend to be cautious about movies produced and directed by their stars. Turning the camera on oneself begets temptations to egotism that few can completely resist. The worst of such films fetishize their leading men, and even the best, like Braveheart, feel a bit top-heavy. Mel Gibson might have been manly and epic enough as William Wallace to make my father cry, but he still stuck out like a sore, handsome thumb.
As it ultimately does with so many Hollywood norms, Gran Torino toys with our expectations of self-aggrandizement: the sore, handsome thumb is still there, but it’s weathered and wrinkled almost, but not quite, past recognition. That thumb (all right, time to stop calling it a thumb) is Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed the film and stars in it as Walt Kowalski, an embittered widower and Korean War veteran whose Detroit neighborhood has changed beyond his ability to keep up.
This, of course, is a formula we all know and love: members of two vastly different cultures, initially separated by fear of and prejudice against one another, break down the barriers that divide them in a series of lighthearted moments. They realize they aren’t so different after all just in time to confront some evil that has been menacing them both. Said evil is defeated, and everyone else lives happily and harmoniously ever after.
Not everyone is living happily ever after at the end of Gran Torino, but the arc is unmistakable. Walt’s increasing interest and involvement in the lives of the Van Lor family — brother Thao (Bee Vang) and sister Sue (Ahney Her), their mother and grandmother and assorted relatives — takes all the expected routes: bitterness and antagonism give way to grudging acceptance and eventual emotional investment as food is exchanged, work is shared, and Walt continually bails the Vang Lors out of trouble, usually by being crankier and more intimidating than their antagonists.
The film’s interactions with Christianity at first seem as trite and superficial as everything else it has going on. Walt battles young the Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) intermittently, refusing to go to Confession despite his late wife’s pleas and insulting the priest repeatedly to his face. Eventually, thanks to Janovich’s persistence, the two wind up sharing a beer and a conversation, and Walt finally agrees to confess. The grumpy old man gets less grumpy and finds God all at once.
It’s certainly nothing new, but the sheer force of Eastwood’s presence carries us through even the baldest of clichés. We may chuckle at the dialogue every now and then, but we still believe it; we still believe the man on the screen, which is all we have to do, because all this, as it turns out, is only rising action, buildup to a climax that wrenches the movie into an entirely new direction and the audience into an entirely different frame of mind.
As Walt gets to know the Vang Lors he also gets to know their enemies, a gang of thugs led by Spider (Doua Moua), whose behavior toward his “cousins” borders on the sociopathic. Despite Walt’s best and increasing efforts to protect his neighbors, Spider’s gang tortures them continually, beating up Thao and eventually (and somewhat inexplicably) shooting up the family’s home and raping Sue. The crimes, and the close-up shots of a bloodied Sue that announce them, cry for action: Someone clearly needs to do something.
What Walt ultimately decides to do is the film’s real statement about Christianity, an affirmation of Christ and a challenge to Christians. Walt doesn’t save the neighborhood by killing the bad guys. He saves it by letting the bad guys kill him. He doesn’t save his friends by fighting for them; he saves them by dying for them. Standing face to face with pure evil, Walt reaches into his coat for a gun he does not have and falls in a hail of bullets. The shots bring the police, who arrest the murderers: the only possible true victory, won by losing.
The worst part is, we feel set up, bait-and-switched. We’re angry; we need our righteous vengeance; we want and expect old Clint Eastwood to open up a can of you-know-what on those you-know-whos. It’s a reasonable expectation: after all, that same Clint Eastwood made a career out of opening said cans on said individuals. It’s a part of our tradition.
But tradition can blind us to reality. The apostles, even as they walked side by side with Christ, expected a conqueror, a Messiah who would vanquish their enemies. What they got was the very picture of humility, a bewildering paradox who rode into Jerusalem like a king only to be led out like a criminal. The gun everyone thought was in his pocket turned out to be a Zippo.
We know the story so well we have a hard time recognizing it. What Gran Torino does in one sense is put us in the shoes of Christ’s friends, setting up an inevitable confrontation between the ultimate good and the ultimate evil and giving victory to good by letting evil win.
But even at its best moment, the moment it’s been building to for two hours, the moment it finally flips the clichés it’s been built on thus far on their ears, Gran Torino can’t seem to help itself. Walt falls to the ground with his arms spread, cruciform. It’s a powerful image, but the Christ-like death scene is, like Eastwood himself, at a point in its life where it only barely escapes self-parody. A moving gesture, yes, but Tony Montana died that way too.
But no matter how Gran Torino goes about making its point, it’s a point worth making. It’s a reminder of the beautiful contradiction at the heart of Christianity, of God’s strength perfected in apparent human weakness. It’s a call to sacrifice, an example of self-denial running parallel to that offered by Jesus on the cross. It’s an affirmation of the Christ who told us “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends,” and then showed us exactly what he meant.
At least, I hope so.
Because at this point, I was thrown for yet another loop. The warning bells that usually accompany movies like Gran Torino in my mind, so easily silenced by the rest of the film, were set ringing again by the sound of Eastwood’s aged, brittle voice singing the movie’s theme over its final sequence, an ego trip if ever I’ve heard one.
Maybe it’s some kind of meta-cliché; maybe Eastwood is just toying with us one last time, reminding us, his tongue firmly in his cheek, that it’s his movie and no one else’s. The problem is, there’s no way to tell. Gran Torino might be an exercise in the manipulation of standard Hollywood motifs, in the manipulation of manipulation. But it might, just as likely, be the product of the ego of one old man.
I have nothing against Clint Eastwood, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Gran Torino arrives at its best moments by accident.
Jim Shirey ‘11 is a Government concentrator living in Kirkland House.