Making the Grades
This week, in the city where I live, an innocent man was gunned down outside a local diner, the victim of an escalating gang war plaguing our streets and many others around the world. Since that horrific day, the ammunition has continued to fly even as police search for a way to protect everyday citizens.
In an example of art reflecting reality, the movie Gran Torino showcases another neighborhood under attack. While the teen characters in the film and Clint Eastwood’s no-nonsense attitude toward gangs may appeal to younger viewers, the script contains dozens of uses of the extreme sexual expletive, both in a sexual and non-sexual context, as well as pervasive profanities and derogatory ethnic slurs. Fistfights and weapon violence also break out as Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), an aging Korean War veteran, confronts the gangbangers encroaching on his Mid-Western town.
Over the years, Walt has watched the color and culture of his locality change. Hmong refugees have settled into the homes on his street as more and more of the old population passes away or leaves. His aversion to these new residents is obvious, yet the families tolerate his derogatory comments and churlish stares with polite indifference.
But the caustic, foul-mouthed widower (who has no intention of hiding his prejudice) is moved to action when a carload of Asian gang members rough up the boy next door. Though Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) wants nothing to do with his cousin’s (Doua Moua) crime ring, his refusal to join them results in a malicious front yard beating in spite of Thao’s sister’s (Ahney Her) attempts to intervene. However, the attack quickly dissolves when Walt points a high-powered rifle at the instigators. His intercession makes the surly Caucasian a hero to the other quiet immigrants on the street. It also pinpoints him as a target for the gun-toting mob.
While the story could easily have spiraled into a continuous barrage of bullets, Eastwood, who also produced and directed the film, creates a moving, insightful look into the reality of a changing ethnic landscape. His character, mourning the loss of his wife and estranged relationships with his children, lives a morose and empty life that he’s created for himself. Even the neighborhood’s young priest (Christopher Carley) is rebuffed when he attempts to befriend the old man after his wife’s funeral. Still, redemption comes to the calloused soul when he reluctantly agrees to let the battered young immigrant work for him as repayment for trying to steal his prized car—a 1972 Gran Torino. Luckily Eastwood pulls off the reformation without losing the edge to his character.
This story comes with many positive elements, including the depictions of religious leaders, community involvement, and the power of individuals to influence the lives of others. Yet these messages are accompanied by a battery of vulgarities, brutal beatings, the discussion of a rape and the portrayal of a bullet-riddled body that make this film a heavy entertainment option—even for adults.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Gran Torino.
Walt’s neighborhood is made up of many immigrants including Walt’s own family, who have a Polish ancestry, and his Irish barber. Does Walt take that into consideration when he forms an opinion about the new arrivals on his street? Why is it easy to judge all people from a specific race, ethnic group or religious denomination as being the same? Why is this a dangerous assumption?
What has hindered Walt’s relationship with his children? How does that change with Thao and Sue?
What challenges do immigrants face? What kinds of programs or involvement from local citizens can lessen the difficulty for new arrivals?