A Reading of “Gran Torino” by Clint Eastwood [Revised]

In 2008, Clint Eastwood directed, produced, and starred in a film called Gran Torino. Gran Torino tells the story of an old, retired, and cantankerous Korean War veteran, Walt Kowalski, who lives in Detroit and reluctantly befriends a young Hmong teen that initially tries to steal Kowalski’s car, an old Ford Gran Torino (thus the name of the film). After the boy, named Thao, is forced to work for Walt as penance, a relationship is formed, and Walt eventually helps Thao stand up to a Hmong gang that terrorizes Thao, his family, and the neighborhood.

Although the film was met with critical and popular acclaim, there is an underlying problem that not as many people are talking about. This problem is the perpetuation of a certain type of Asian-American masculinity on screen. Brandzel and Desai, in their essay titled “Race, Violence, and Terror,” talk about the reaction to white hegemonic masculinity and the consequences of boys who do not live up to those standards. They specifically talk about school shootings, such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, as the result of a bad, possibly worst, reaction to hegemony in schools. Brandzel and Desai cite two other authors in a particular passage by saying, “Kimmel and Mahler argue that one of the central thematics throughout the school shootings is that the perpetrators-the boys-were… unable to obtain the privileges afforded to (white) heteromasculinity… Understood in this light, however, we begin to see the ways in which violent white boys are given a cultural license to ‘retaliate’ for being victims of the loss of heteromasculine privilege” (68).

The authors here are talking specifically about how anything that does not match up with the established heteronormative behavior at school is seen as “gay,” and while this is not exactly the case with Thao in Gran Torino, there is still a strong comparison that can be drawn. In the film, Thao originally must steal Walt’s Gran Torino as a sign of masculinity and toughness in order to be accepted into a gang and not be terrorized by them. But because Thao fails to do this and instead befriends and is helped by the intended target, Thao acts against the established heteronormative expected behavior and therefore is subjected to torture by the gang for the rest of the film. And although the perpetrators are not white, they are the established power in the film, and therefore set the normal behavior, much like white males do in real environments, such as schools.

Thus because Thao and his family are subjected to violence and terror because Thao has chosen a different path, this leads to the retaliation that Brandzel and Desai reference in their essay. And herein lies the problem of Gran Torino: the film references this power structure that is established in the setting of the film, but instead of acting against that and suggesting a new way to deal with this problem, the film portrays the very same retaliation that Brandzel and Desai reference: violence, the ultimate form of masculinity. Granted, the film does not end with all the gang members shot up; however, the climactic scene does involve shooting after the gang members think Walt has a gun on him. And, earlier in the film, Walt confronts Thao with a gun, and later, Thao expresses his strong desire to go on a rampage and kill all of the gang members. These are hyper-masculine responses to Thao’s treatment as a result of his ostricization from the heteronormative norm set, and by portraying these on screen, Gran Torino perpetuates the portrayal of typical masculine behavior as a result of the hegemonic masculinity present in various environments.

But we can also look at technical elements of the film to see a reflect of these values. The lighting is important and noticable; much of the lighting is dark and many of the colors an scenes were muted. This is to give it a gritty, harsh feeling, matching the gritty masculinity and violence seen in the film. Even the poster is very dark, and only have of Clint Eastwood is seen because the other half is in the dark. The climactic shootout scene is at night. Even in the daylight, the scenes have a darkness to them (literally, not figuratively) that reflect the masculinity and violence of the movie. The mood is always somber (Eastwood’s character is quite literally always somber and glaring), and on top of that, there are a couple funeral scenes, which is just about as somber as you can get. Almost everything in the film stylistically reflects this masculinity.

It is important to identify these aspects of the film and how they affect society because, well, they affect society. Audiences watch this film and connect certain Asian American communities to the violence in the film. While showing the hardships of an Asian American community is significant, it is problematic to say that the best way to deal with violence is to meet it with violence, because that perpetuates this need for masculinity and violence when dealing with a threat such as the one in the film. Gran Torino may be portraying an important issue that Asian Americans deal with, but may not be portraying the solution in the best way.

Gran Torino trailer

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