Gran Torino

Justine Toh explores how Clint Eastwood's film deconstructs the violence of his earlier work.

  ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’
– Dirty Harry, 1971  
    ‘Go ahead, make my day!’
– Sudden Impact, 1983 

These quotes, innocuous enough on their own, are instantly recognisable when delivered with the trademark squint of screen legend Clint Eastwood as rebel-cop Harry Callahan of Dirty Harry. Laconic, tough, and taunting, the statements summarise the acceptability of violence in the American experience—not only as a way to fight crime but also to provide the measure of a man. But almost forty years after Dirty Harry popularised those famous lines, Eastwood has made another memorable statement concerning violence in Gran Torino: ‘They won’t have a chance’. Perhaps it’s not as pithy as ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ but the line deserves equal recognition in the Eastwood lexicon.

While it shares with those other statements a ballsy arrogance that is certain of ultimate victory, unlike them it does not sanction violence—especially that directed against others—to save the day. The ‘punk’ and ‘make my day’ taunts suggest victory may be achieved, and peace secured, by Eastwood taking the law into his own hands and inflicting violence on others. In contrast, ‘They won’t have a chance’ of Gran Torino indicates that willing submission to the law, rather than its contravention, offers more hope in realising victory and securing a safe future.

In Gran Torino Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a churlish Korean War veteran who becomes a grudging protector of the Hmong family next door after Thao, its son, becomes a target for the local gang terrorising the area. Walt’s confrontations with the Hmong gang become increasingly aggressive as the gang ratchet up their violence against Thao and his sister Sue with whom Walt has struck up an affectionate, sparring friendship. For the film’s first half, the wizened Walt retreads the steps of countless Eastwood heroes by both threatening violence to thugs and doling it out with gritty pleasure, and all in the service of the helpless community represented by Thao and Sue.

Seeing the septuagenarian star still cut it as an action hero is both admirable and absurd, though given what we have come to expect from an Eastwood film you never doubt that he’s going to save (and thereby make) our day. Eastwood’s reliable heroism makes Walt’s tendency to growl at punks and shoot at them with pistol fingers not just the empty (and slightly crazy?) threats of an old man but a down payment on a cheque that his ageing body can still, apparently, cash.

These scenes evoke the Dirty Harry-era of Eastwood where heroism is linked to violence, and where victory is signified by the triumphant (male) hero standing over the felled body of his antagonist. In the Dirty Harry world, one’s masculinity and heroism is tied to one’s ability to act decisively, to be individualistic, tough, conservative, authoritative and cocky, summed up in the scene where Callahan first delivers ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ In that scene, after wounding a black bank robber, Callahan taunts the ‘punk’ in question by raising the possibility that he is being held at bay with a gun that has no more bullets. After the robber (improbably) agrees to test his luck, Callahan fires his Smith & Wesson into the man’s face. The barrel proves empty, but that Callahan can grin at the man jerking in expectation of receiving a bullet between the eyes indicates his callous attitude to his criminal other—as well as his willingness to flout the law in order to deliver justice. The racial politics of this scene—the white man as the law, the black man as criminal—encourage the assumption that had the gun chamber contained a bullet, Harry would have been justified in blowing away the robber.

In Gran Torino, however, Walt’s final confrontation with the Hmong gang reverses, almost point for point, the expectations established by that scene in Dirty Harry: Eastwood-as-Walt may save the day, but it comes at the cost of his life. As such, Gran Torino’s climax reimagines heroism along self-abnegating lines where heroism is no longer about inflicting violence but suffering and enduring it. With this ending, the film also acknowledges the fallibility of its hero by recognising that Walt’s (initial) Dirty Harry-style methods are part and parcel of a relentless cycle of violence. When Harry says ‘Go ahead, make my day!’ in Sudden Impact, for example, he invites aggression from the criminal in his crosshairs by promising that hostility will be met by an equally ruthless force. Harry’s policing methods, in short, encourage lawlessness rather than arrest it, and constitute a dangerous game of one-upmanship between cop and criminal that claims many victims in the process—Sue, in Gran Torino’s case. After she is violated by the thugs, Walt’s fury seems not only directed at them, but also at himself for provoking their cruelty. Such reflexivity would be alien to the world of Dirty Harry.

The film’s deconstruction of violence, in this sense, recalls Unforgiven, another Eastwood film that indicates ambivalence about the place of violence in the American experience. When read as companion pieces, both Gran Torino and Unforgiven seem to atone for the ‘might is right’ attitude of the roles for which Eastwood is, ironically, most famous: (White) men who deal out violence and death without second thought, and frequently without regard to the (un)lawfulness of their actions. In Unforgiven, Eastwood demythologises the violence that is key to representations of the cowboy or the gunfighter; in the process critiquing Westerns that too easily glamorise the violence of the frontier—including the spaghetti westerns that made his career. And in Gran Torino, where Eastwood might once have taken the law into his own hands (as Harry Callahan frequently did), and defeated his antagonists with little more than a six-shooter and a sneer, he instead submits to the authority of the law and lays down his own life. Instead of brandishing a gun at his antagonists, Walt sacrifices himself—indicated in the star’s body sprawled, crucifixion-style, on the ground.

The Bible’s account of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to which the crucifixion imagery of Gran Torino refers, is also a story of submission to the law—except in the Bible’s case, these are not the laws of man but the laws of God. The Bible holds that as a result of sin (the flouting of God’s law), humans are in a kind of endless war with God, and that the violent effects of this war reverberate throughout the natural order, afflict human relationships, and ultimately ruin any chance of human communion with God. But the Bible also holds that to achieve peace between God and his people, Jesus, as God’s chosen representative, took upon himself the punishment for sin, thus satisfying God’s justice and saving the world in the process. And that’s an ultimate victory that’s worth celebrating.

Now obviously, Gran Torino is no pat allegory for the Bible. For one thing, Walt’s sacrifice is for Sue and Thao and their family alone, not the Hmong gang. Jesus, on the other hand, died for the renewal of friend and foe alike. But I’m interested in what the two stories have in common. Both recognise the power of submissive, sacrificial acts to achieve a common good, and both demonstrate how such acts are, ultimately, more effective in bringing about real change than any infliction of violence. Given Eastwood’s screen career, mostly populated by violent men who inflict violence on others to secure peace, it’s gripping to watch Eastwood enact in Gran Torino an alternative ethics of violence—and of heroism, for that matter. Concerning heroism, this alternative ethics empowers a model of heroism that is not so much about might, bluster and reliance on force, but about humility and willingness to put aside one’s own interests for the good of others. This alternative ethics also recognises that violence against others is no solution, but that acts of self-sacrifice that perform a kind of violence-to-self may be truly transformative. Such acts, as in the case of Christ, have the power to change the world.

Justine Toh is a doctoral candidate in Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. Her research explores Hollywood film and American memorial culture in the light of the September 11, 2001 attacks.