Detroit is my home, and its environs are the setting for this very fine movie that confronts the seeming inexorable neighborhood decay, deteriorating family and neighborhood relationships, and the substrate that poverty and isolation provides for urban gangs and guerillas.
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Michigan, perhaps more than most states, is under assault from its own inability to adapt to change and external forces in the auto industry. Like Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), some want to reduce decades of problems to the over-simplistic cause: greedy union auto workers.
Clint Eastwood's film opens in what should be my parish church, just across the border from Detroit in the more advantaged Grosse Pointe Park. We have great schools; Detroit, the opposite. St Ambrose is a conservative, toe-the-line Roman Catholic Church; I prefer Nativity, in the heart of east Detroit, where loving God and your neighbor come before issues about “thou shalt nots,” stem cell research, and pulpit dictums about who to vote for based on abortion policies.
Mr. Eastwood spins a tale about an aging, disgruntled auto worker, Walt Kowalski, who is burying his long-suffering wife. Walt is presented as a misanthrope: disappointed with his family, his deteriorating neighborhood, a Church that “provides false hope to superstitious old women,” and life that is drawing to a close with much of what he believes in left unfulfilled.
Eastwood plays Kowalski as a hoarse, gruff, bitter old man, contemptuous of his superficial sons, their vacuous families, their acquisitions: things that stand for nothing, and culture-driven children who lack seriousness or respect for anything. He remains haunted by memories of the forgotten war in Korea, where he killed.
We open in church, where Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) preaches a serviceable homily, and grand-daughter Ashley (Dreama Walker) arrives with midriff-exposing belly-button piercings and cell phone texting during her grandmother's farewell. Walt is impossible to please, and his sons know it, and have given up.
His wife made Father Janovich promise that he would get Walt to confess his sins. To his credit, and Janovich's cherubic Irish face with a Slavic surname, he relentlessly presents himself trying to be pastoral to an utterly black-hearted, black-souled, black sheep that lives within a code of manly stoicism and isolation that finds little good in the world.
Curiously, most of the filming is done in Highland Park and Grosse Pointe Park, the former no longer very park-like and like Hamtramck, completely surrounded by decaying Detroit, with weeded lots and burned-out houses. I wondered, though, why Detroit itself was not chosen for the setting.
The action in the film moves to the changing neighborhood, and the deteriorated properties now occupied by the Hmong immigrants. I wondered why he picked an obscure Asian minority known by few, and did not pick African Americans, since Detroit is Motown and known for our immigrants five to seven decades ago who left oppressive Jim Crow neighborhoods for opportunities in Detroit's assembly lines.
Few have heard of Hmong, the Hill people of Indo-China, who were US allies against the communist governments in Southeast Asia. My neighborhood Thai restaurant is owned by Hmong, and their relatives are cast in the movie.
The US air-lifted out and left most of them behind to feel the wrath of the Pathet Lao: They lost 18,000 people and only after have emigrated to settlements, mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they are an oppressed minority.
We have a small Hmong community in Highland Park, the site of the Ford Model-T assembly plant. (Hamtramck, just north of Pole Town in Detroit, houses a GM assembly plant and no longer many Poles, but many Bangladeshi expatriates—we are poorer in Detroit but diverse).
In Walt Kowalski's world, the Hmong are treated badly, like everyone else. Walt stands guard on his porch and spits, as flocks of Hmong visit. His neighbor, Sue Lor (Ahney Her), first cracks his impenetrable armor, and ultimately he befriends her brother, Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), but after he has been brow-beaten and humiliated by the local Hmong gang to steal Walt's restored, metallic green Torino—hardly a favorite among collectors, but Walt made this one…the last off the line. His garage has every tool and every thing necessary to build the car and tear it down.
Seeing a film from your own neighborhood is great fun. The hardware store is across from Janet's Lunch, where I have weekend breakfast. Two signs characterize the hardware store: “We support our troops,” and “Want a free ride in a police car? Try shoplifting.”
It fits nicely into Walt's world. Hearing the racially charged language I guess can be supported in context, but I have not heard a black person called a “spook” since high school. “Slant,” “gook,” and two I'd never heard: “slope” and “fish-head,” were reserved for disreputable Hmongs in the gangs. But the exchanges between Walt and his barber were used to model “how men talk” to try to “butch-up” the sissified Thao. It is Bigot Class 101, but not for those with ethnic or racial sensitivities.
Eastwood delivers a fine performance. His sons play the awkward “can't please dad, so why bother” to a tee. The transformation from the racist, security minded Walt to a selfless redeeming father figure to Thao stretches credulity, but the lead-up and the tactical maneuvers he delivers are impressive.
Eastwood's portrayal of Catholicism fits my Jesuit-educated skepticism, and he has also done so in Million Dollar Baby. I think he asks many of the right questions and delivers some very provocative solutions.
Many suggest that this will be his last effort. It is worth your time.
There is also a subtle anti-smoking argument, but as in real life, he makes it in such a way that says he's not worthy to even try to salvage his own illness.
The final scenes resolve the fate of Walt Kowalski and the Gran Torino. I saw too much of myself, my family, my daughters, and my community in this movie. We can all learn a lot from this movie. Don't miss it.
© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.