Beloved, let us love one another, because love is
from God; everyone who loves is born of God
and knows God. Whoever does not love does
not know God, for God is love…
1 John 4:7-8
All who hate a brother or sister his brother’ are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
1 John 3:15-16
Playing off the violent characters he has played in the past, Clint Eastwood again works both sides of the camera in what we could call “Dirty Harry Meets Archie Bunker Meets Saint Francis.” Eastwood plays the lead, Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and now retired from a Ford assembly line, but not enjoying life because his Detroit neighborhood has been taken over by a people he neither understands nor likes. The Hmong are refugees from the hills of Vietnam who aided the Americans during the war and then had to flee in order to escape reprisals from the Communists. To Walt, however, they are just the same as “the slopeheads” whom he had killed in Korea.
The recently widowed Walt also does not get along with his own grown children and their families, neither respecting their values nor agreeing with their advice that he sell the house and move to a retirement center. The story begins at the Catholic church where, even though his wife was a faithful attender, he himself is a stranger. The young Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) tells him that he made a promise to the dying woman that he would look after Walt. Kowalski is quick to respond that he does not need any looking after. Nevertheless the priest is soon knocking on his door, but Walt will not let him in. He prefers to sit alone on his porch sipping a can of beer and grousing to his yellow Labrador Daisy about the decline of the neighborhood.
The Lor family next door are dominated by a mother and a daughter because the man of the house has died. Walt regards the oldest son Thao (Bee Vang) as a weakling because he seems to yield to his mother and older sister. When the boy wants to borrow jumper cables, Walt closes the door in his face. Thao is even more beset by an Hmong gang of his cousins who are trying to force him into their ranks. When he finally gives in, his initiatory mission is to steel Walt’s pride and joy, the pristine 1972 Gran Torino stored in his garage. Walt catches the hapless boy, and holding him at gun point, trips, thus triggering the rifle. Thao runs off before the old man can regain his balance.
The next day Thao is led over by Mrs. Lor and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), who demand that the boy apologize. They also offer him to work off his debt by doing chores around the house and yard. Walt wants nothing to do with any of them, but he reluctantly gives in and agrees to supervise the boy’s chores for one week. During the next few days the older man slowly warms to the boy, who proves to be a hard worker, though Thao would not know this from the racial epithets and put downs spewed out by the man. When Walt defends both son and older sister from two different gangs, the grateful Hmong family showers Walt with invitations and sumptuous dishes. No matter what Walt says, the people will not take “No.” The reluctant Walt is surprised to find himself eating food at the family’s large gathering next door, and even liking it. As the harrassment and violence from the Hmong gang increases, Walt realizes that there will be no peace for himself or his new friends until he has a showdown with the gangsters.
Often funny and touching, the film takes its time in showing the change in Walt. There is a scene in which Walt sits on his porch while the Hmong grandmother glares across at him from her porch. We hear Walt’s insults ( “fishheads” and “zipperheads” are among his milder labels) and see in subtitles her equally insulting remarks about him. When Walt decides to “man him up,” he takes Thao to his barber, with the unexpected, amusing result that the barber almost shoots the boy, who repeats some of the same “man talk” that Walt has just used. The film takes quite a turn at the climax, making this film even more moving than The Changeling. It is hard to believe that this is Nick Schenk’s first film script, the movie being so well thought out and acted—and, of course, directed.
Spoilers below, especially toward the end—this could really take away the impact of the ending.
1. What signs do you see that Walt is lonely? How is Walt typical of many men in respect to the church? What do you see and hear in Walt that reminds you of Dirty Harry? (To whom does he say, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.” 2. What about Walt’s relationship with his family? Not the loveable grandfatherly type is he? What do you think has come between them through the years?
3. How is Father Janovich apparently different from priests that Walt has known? What does his seeking Walt out in the bar show about the clergyman? What remark does he make to Walt later that indicates that he is not sitting in his church waiting for the neighborhood’s newcomers to come to him? When Walt and priest eventually really talk with one another, what does Walt’s comment about his past war experience reveal, “The thing that haunts a man most is what he isn’t ordered to do” ? How on target is the priest’s remark that “It sounds like you know more about dying than living” ? How does the priest show that he is a very open person?
4. How familiar are you with situations such as Walt finds himself in, regarding changes in neighborhoods? Have you or your church been in this situation? What has too often been the reaction of urban churches to a changing neighborhood?
5. Reflect upon/discuss the “moments of grace” in the film: . -The persistence of the priest in seeking out Walt.
. -Thao helping the woman who spilled her sacks of groceries. How does this start to change Walt’s atti tude toward the boy?
. -Walt’s coming to the rescue of Thao and Sue, despite his prejudice.
. -Sue’s invitation to eat with her family.
. -Walt helping Thao with “Yum Yum.” . -Sue telling Walt, “You’re a good man.” Do you think anyone has said that to him for a long while?
. -Walt’s “manning up” Thao; buying tools; getting him the job interview.
. -Walt giving Thao’s family a bargain on the freezer.
. -Walt loans his prized car to Thao.
. -Walt at Confession.
. Ultimately, what Walt does for the family in the showdown, including locking Thao in the basement: what were you expecting to happen at the climax? How do you think Walt’s state of health figured into his decision?
. Walt’s will.
6. What reconciliation do you see taking place when the priest visits Walt, and his host asks if he wants a beer? How is permission to call him by his first name a sign of progress on Walt’s part. And yet, Walt is still a man of violence: how does add to the impact of what Walt does at the end?