Disclaimer: This is a sociological article about human nature. There is content to this article, that some may find offensive. The article is not meant to be offensive. Please keep that in mind. Also the article contains some spoilers.
A few weeks ago, I went to see Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino. The movie's preview didn't do the film any justice, as it as it left the perception that you were getting Clint doing an older "Dirty Harry". Nothing could be further from the truth. This movie was not about revenge but a film about the human condition. It contained so many lessons about life, and was told in such a poignant way, that it left me in tears of happiness. As the movie opens, we are introduced to a grizzled Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet that has to deal with his changing neighborhood. He is forced to deal with these changes on a more personal level, when a family of Hmong, the indigenous people of the mountainous regions of southeast Asia, move in next door, Walt does his best to show his new neighbors his dissatisfaction. The new neighbors have two teens, a boy named Thao and his sister named Sue Lor, who quickly get to know Walt and vise verse. Here is what the character of Walt Kowalski taught me:
- Words Can Hurt. The words that we use can cut like a knife. For Walt, words provide an endless way of dealing with a world that has changed and he can no longer understand. His use of ethnic slurs are endless. They are his weapon for dealing with his frustration, anger and to cover up the damage that fighting in the Korean War had done to him. He is not "politically correct", nor does he care to be, because in the world that he grew up in, few were. But were most of his contemporaries would have covered up their bias, Walt wears them proudly.
- Words Mean Nothing. The same words that Walt uses in anger, he also uses as banter. He jokes with them. Here is some dialog from the movie:
- People Should Get a Sense of Humor. We live in a more socially sensitive society and for the most part, this is good. But sometimes people should just lighten up. Walt's new Hmong neighbours, the Lor's take a liking to him for sticking up for their rights and their welfare. The sister, Sue understand Walt and knows how to deal with him. She is not offended by his language, as she understands it's part of the "old man". She knows this because her grandmother is of the same generation as Walt, and says the same kind of things about the white people remaining in the neighborhood. Here is how Sue deals with Walt with humor:
Sue Lor: There's a ton of food.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah, well just keep your hands off my dog.
Sue Lor: No worries, we only eat cats.
- Actions Speak Louder Than Words. In today's society, we all know the right things to say, but very few of us actually do the right things. We don't take a moment to help people. We don't stick up for others when we witness an injustice going on right in front of us. We walk by, when we see people get mugged and avert our eyes when they are being harassed. This has been proved in many sociological tests, including ABC's new show "What Would You Do?" Walt has a unique perspective on how he deals with life. He "fixes things" . Walt, has no problem telling right from wrong and fixes any situation he sees happening. When Thao's cousin starts to harass Thao and his family, Walt takes action to help them. He gets Thao a job, so that he can go to college. He save Sue Lor from a possible rape by a gang of boys, and lectures her about the dangers of the "hood'. He watches out for the family. He even takes a moment to stop and fix a wobbling washing machine, while giving Thao pointers on how to talk to girls at the same time. If you judge Walt by his actions, he is compassionate, caring and helpful. He is an example of what all people should aspire too.
- Honoring Those We Love. Walt is not a religious man. Although he was raised a Catholic, he has his own subtle ways of showing his displeasure with the Church. When making the sign of the cross he mutters under his breath, "Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch." But his wife, who had recently passed, was a religious woman and wanted Walt to make confession. Walt loved his wife dearly and described her "the best woman to ever walk on the planet" As an act of love for his wife, Walt does make confession. As we get to know Walt, his gruff exterior was a cover for the love, caring and compassion he hides in his heart.
- Sacrifice is the True Indicator of Quality of Character. After a brutal attack by the local Hmong gang on the family next door Walt realizes his Hmong friends are trapped in what looks like an impossibly hopeless situation. But Walt knows how to fix things, and he contrives an amazingly clever solution so his Hmong friends can have a future here in America. We all know the meaning of sacrifice, but so few of us actually make it. Walt, despite all his flaws, truly understands what it takes to be a good person, what is good from what is evil and is willing to put it all on the line to stand up for what he believes in. If all of us would do this, what a better world this would be.
Barber Martin: There. You finally look like a human being again. You shouldn't wait so long between hair cuts, you cheap son of a bitch.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah. I'm surprised you're still around. I was always hoping you'd die off and they got someone in here that knew what the hell they were doing. Instead, you're just hanging around like the duop dego you are.
Barber Martin: That'll be ten bucks, Walt.
Walt Kowalski: Ten bucks? Jesus Christ, Marty. What are you, half Jew or somethin'? You keep raising the damn prices all the time.
Barber Martin: It's been ten bucks for the last five years, you hard-nosed pollock son of a bitch.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah, well keep the change.
Barber Martin: See you in three weeks, prick.
Walt Kowalski: Not if I see you first, dip shit.
Walt and his barber words sound full of hate but they mean no harm. In today's society, these words are highly offensive. But these two are stuck in a time warp and the words are just that, words. For these men their banter is how they show their affection for each other. Real men of their generation didn't wear their emotions, on their sleeve, they busted on each other in verbal play. They even try to mentor Walt's neighbour, Thao, on how a real man should talk and act, so that Thao could get a job in construction and fit in with the other construction workers.
Was Walt perfect? Far from it. But Walt showed us what a man of integrity is capable of; introspection, change and listening to his heart, and that is what will stick with me. None of us are perfect. We all have our flaws. But it is the decision to take stock of ones self, to see who we are acknowledge our shortcomings, and being able to make a change, that is the real message of this film. That is what Gran Torino taught me. And as the movie closes, we see Thao driving Walt's car, as Clint sings in a gravely voice: " So tenderly your story is, nothing more than what you see, or what you've done or will become, standing strong do you belong, in your skin; just wondering?"