OK, we’ve all seen the Clint Eastwood tough guy persona, and yes, now he’s so old it almost seems like he’s caricaturing himself. But this movie has some other things going for it besides his patented glare and his irksome growl. He plays a man named Walter Kovolski, Korean War Vet, who’s always been haunted by something that happened there, and now he’s coughing blood. We begin with a funeral service for his wife, where he stares disdainfully at his teenaged granddaughter, who he feels is not appropriately attired for the occasion. It doesn’t help when his grandson, upon genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, mutters the old “spectacles, testicles, wallet, glasses,” smirking and snickering into the pew. Not that Walt cares about respecting religion all that much. In fact, he tells the over-earnest young priest that he doesn’t need to talk to him. When the boyish-looking padre persists, finally Walt looks him in the eye and says, “Look I think you’re an overeducated, 27-year-old virgin who holds hands with little old ladies and tries to make them feel better by promising them eternity.” And that’s one of the nicer things he says to the eager, freckle-faced clergyman. But give the cleric credit, he persists, because he promised Kovolski’s wife, before she died, that he would get her husband to confession. Kovolski asks him why he goes around promising things that he can’t deliver. And we laugh nervously at the edge on their relationship, even as we celebrate every curmudgeonly old man who shakes his head at young people, barks at neighbors, and saves his only kind words for his dog, who, of course, never crosses him. His two grown sons always seem to want something from him, and indeed, we learn from eavesdropping on the conversation between the two of them that they’ve given up trying to please the old man, who seems determined to brush them off no matter what they say. The truth is, he has no idea what to say to them. Never has. It was his now-sainted wife who did all that. Here’s a man’s man who keeps his classic Gran Torino polished, possesses in his garage every tool imaginable, neatly hung in order, stubbornly does his own yard work, and rarely has anything decent to eat. So, he sits out on his front porch and smokes cigarettes and drinks beer, and if he spots an intruder, runs upstairs and loads up his Army rifle. Can anyone break through the macho persona?
Well, it turns out that the neighborhood is changing, and there’s an Asian girl next door named Susie, who figures out how to speak to our irascible Mr. Kovolski. Her younger brother, Tao, is kind of a lost little boy, and a pest besides, but Kovolski senses something important: a teenager on the brink. His gang buddies are trying to get him to ride with them, to break the law as an initiation, and Kovolski knows that there is no return from that dark place of escalating violence. So he tries, in his feeble way, to mentor the boy, cussing him and castigating him, but even Tao can tell that there’s some developing affection behind all that constant gruffness.
The last lesson that Kovolski has to teach Tao is the toughest of all: when to stand up, when to escalate, when to back down, and when to arrange a confrontation with your tormentors, and with what expectations. Along the way, Kovolski develops a kind of grudging respect for the well-intentioned but wet-behind-the-ears seminary graduate, who, at the very least, seems capable of learning, and, to his credit, really does care.
“Gran Torino” is not for those who want their characters saccharined, their language sanitized, their intercultural interaction pristinely politically correct, and their endings happily ever after for all. It is a grousing, baleful, awkward, but ultimately hopeful sketch of a singular character, brought to swaggering vividness by Clint Eastwood, the master of the vulnerable, venerable old rascal.
Questions for Discussion:
1) How many crotchety old men do you know? How many non-crotchety old men do you know?
2) When has an awkward relationship with a minister worked out redemptively? When has it just remained awkward?
3) When has a changing neighborhood worked out redemptively? When has it just remained awkward?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church,