Related text for Belonging:
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Walt and his family: religion
The opening of the film introduces us to WALT KOWALSKI at the funeral of his wife. The opening
scene and the next (the wake) show us that Walt has no desire to belong either to his family or to his
religion. Everything jars with Walt, from the young priest giving the eulogy to his granddaughters
belly button ring, from the Japanese car driven by his son to his granddaughters crass selfishness.
He perceives his family as selfish, materialistic and shallow. His family also reject and are intolerant
of him. He also rejects the ties of belonging represented by religion though we only learn the real
reason for this later. It’s quite plain he thinks that the young priest knows absolutely nothing about
life or death and is singularly ill qualified to speak at any funeral let alone his wife’s. When the priest
turns up at the wake he is almost unbelievably rude: “I have no desire to confess to a boy who is
fresh out of the seminary”.
The wake scene also shows Walt’s racism and rejection of the family next door – the Hmongs –
through his overtly racist comments (“swamp rats...zipper head”.) and his refusal to help Tao with
the jumper leads. He’s horrified by the sacrifice he witnesses in the neighbours’ back yard. But his
rejection of and isolation from his own family are contrasted with the family next door: their own
gathering represents how strong still are the ties of religion and family, despite the tensions and
conflict over Tao.
Tao and the Hmong gang
In poor neighbourhoods gang culture can be a substitute for the wider sense of identity which comes
from belonging to and sharing the values of society at large – especially when you feel your own
culture is rejected. The fact that the gangs in this movie – Hispanic, Black, Asian – are based on race
makes them in a way a racist defence against racism – ironically the kind of racism represented by
Walt’s attitudes in the film. The Hmong gang rescue Tao from the Hispanics and then try to enlist
him, offering him protection, identity and a sense of belonging – all things he’s struggling to find. He
reluctantly accepts and agrees to their “initiation” – to steal the Gran Torino. In these scenes various
“ways of belonging” are represented: the language (ironically both the gangs speak a similar
language), the clothes, the racist attitudes, as well as the way gang membership appears to meet the
need for safety and security. Tao is having trouble finding a sense of identity and belonging with his
family who reject him because he’s “not a man”.
The car, like Walt himself, is a symbol of an America which no longer exists if it ever did: and Walt’s
efforts at keeping it in absolutely perfect condition while he himself drives around in a rusty pick up,
show him standing against an inevitable tide of change. There’s a conflict between what has given
Walt his sense of identity and belonging – the America he fought Asians to preserve – and the
present reality where the Asians have moved in to his neighbourhood and his own family have not
only moved away but themselves reject the old values. Detroit – where he still lives – was the
centre of the car industry (until it was challenged by the Japanese cars Walt hates and his son sells)
and symbolises both America’s past industrial strength, and its present industrial decline. Of no less
importance here are Walt’s house (note the American flag defying change), his garage with its tools
and the clearly marked boundaries he tries to maintain between his lawn and the neighbours.
The two rescue scenes
In the first scene Walt is completely unaware that he is doing anything to rescue anyone. As far as
he is concerned he is just defending his territory: “Get off my lawn!” When Tao is saved from the
gang he repeats his order to the rest of the family. All he cares about is that he has been “invaded”
by the “gooks” next door. With typical racist stereotyping he lumps all of his neighbours together.
He has no understanding of their situation or their particular problems. In order to come out of his
own isolation he will have to learn to relate to individuals and also realise some of the problems and
issues that confront his neighbours as a community.
He is absolutely astonished when they try to thank him with gifts and acknowledge the role that he
played the night before. He has absolutely no understanding of their culture and has evidently
never tried to have any contact with them.
In the second rescue scene Sue and her boyfriend happen to be passing through the wrong
neighbourhood. This is not territory where Asians or whites belong. “What the fuck are you doing in
my neighborhood, boy?” As in many American cities racial divides are reflected by geography and
it’s important to know the boundaries. (Walt feels isolated in his own neighbourhood now that all of
the whites except him have either died or moved out. He feels on the contrary that it is the
neighbours who don’t belong, not him, but for the old woman next door the hostility is mutual.)
The main purpose of this scene is as a plot device to get Walt and Sue in the truck talking together
so that they can develop some mutual understanding. The shot/counter shot technique used in the
sequence emphasises the difference in the characters’points of view but this is intersperesed with
direct frontal shots which show them together in the vehicle. Through the windows we can get a
fleeting impression of the different neighbourhoods they pass through, some poor, some more
affluent. (see below for a few more comments about this scene)
Walt’s involvement with the family
The main arc of the film’s plot concerns Walt’s growing involvement with the very family he
expresses such racist attitudes towards. In representing how Walt shifts from one set of values to
another the film uses a classic plot sturcture of development, crisis, climax and denouement. The
opening scenes lay the groundwork: there is a crucial incident (Walt’s rescue of Tao from the gang’s
attempt to re-cruit him – “get off my lawn” ) and an almost inevitable cycle of cause and effect
drawing Walt closer and closer to the family, to the point where his own involvement with and
interest in Tao and the family lead to a classic conflict situation(with the gang) and the final
dramatic climax. A subplot in the film is the relationship with Father Janovic and the priest’s
attempt to bring Walt back to the Church – and Walt’s own unresolved issues about the war.
Walt is represented throughout as a character in conflict between his old values and the present, his
fierce individuality and his loneliness and need to belong, his extreme racism(borne partly of the
war), and his recognition despite this of the humanity of his neighbours. One clever way this is
represented is the fact that even while his attitudes are changing, (we can see this subtext in
Eastwood’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice) Walt’s language remains the same.
(“Bring me another beer, Dragon Lady”). He becomes more and more comfortable with the family
and develops a very strong bond with Tao.
Two key scenes which represent this developing involvement are the dialogue with Sue after Walt
rescues her, and the barbecue. It’s Sue who introduces Walt to the family and from whom Walt
learns a few basic facts about the Hmong, so she forms a kind of bridge. Her confidence and self
assurance fit in with her own account of the differences between the boys and girls in the Hmong
community. She’s not fazed by Walt and it’s something of a reverse of his tactics with the gangs he’s
confronted. This has the effect of breaking through his barriers as she simply refuses to be insulted
or put off by his exterior.
It’s Walt’s birthday and he has just kicked his son and daughter in law out of the house after their
ridiculous and insensitive presents and clumsy attempt to get him into a retirement village. He’s
alone on his porch when Sue arrives back with her family and invites him next door. At first he
refuses but agrees to come over when he realises he’s out of beer! Significant shots in this sequence
or scene are when he is being fed by the Hmong women, is told some more facts about Hmong
culture and mores by Sue, and when he is “read” by the Hmong Shaman. This last incident shakes
Walt to the core: the Shaman reaches him in a way the priest couldn’t. He comments: ”I've got
more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family.”
This is the moment of “recognition” for the character: where he suddenly becomes aware and has to
begin to challenge who he is. Then a “bridging”scene establishes the start of a closer relationship
with Tao: after he’s been fed by the family Sue insists he go down to the basement where the young
people are. He notices Tao’s failure to pick up on the fact that one of the girls is interested in him,
and can’t help giving Tao some blunt and forthright advice.
Tao clearly doesn’t “belong”. There is no father figure in the house and he’s at very great risk of
being drawn into the gang culture. Some of his own family reject him and are contemptuous of him
for “not being a man”. At the same time he has no way of realising his ambition to fit in to American
society and realise his ambition to go to school (College).
Tao is forced by the family to come to work for Walt to “make amends” for his attempt to steal the
car. At first Walt rejects him as he had initially rejected the gifts and the food but when Tao turns up
for work and doggedly puts up with Walt’s insulting treatment Walt changes his attitude and decides
to put him to the test. A bond develops as Walt grudgingly acknowledges Tao’s resilience and
capacity for hard work – something Walt respects. At one point Walt watches the gang drive past
and comments, “This kid doesn’t have a chance” Perhaps with this and Sue’s comment in mind
about the Hmong in America (“the girls go to College, the boys go to jail.”) Walt decides to make a
project of Tao, to “man him up” (the scene with the barber) and get him a job. Walt is trying to help
Tao become a part of American society: he tries to teach him the sort of language and ways of
relating that will enable him to belong in a male working class culture rather than the gang culture.
He gets him a job with Kennedy (iconic American name) the Irish construction boss. Various ways of
belonging are represented here: the male characters retain their ethnic origins as expressed in the
way they abuse each other “you dumb Polack” but are American, as Sue says to Walt. Clearly Walt is
pointing Tao in this direction, giving him a chance to live in both cultures as Sue explains the girls
can: “Hmong girls slip in and out of the culture more easily. Date who we want, stay close to our
mothers,but are able to keep a foot on each side of the fence. The boys fall through the cracks.” This
is what Walt wants to prevent happening to Tao.
Tao’s job, and the jealousy and resentment this arouses in the gang, lead on to the climax and
ending of the film, in a rather predictable but nonethless well-handled series of actions and
reactions – the cigarette burning scene, Walt beating up one of the gang members, the drive-by
shooting and Sue’s rape - which end in Walt’s ultimately Christ like self-sacrifice. Rather
implausibly, the whole gang are arrested after Walt’s death and so Tao is presumably “saved”.
To summarise: the central character of Walt represents various aspects of belonging : to an
American working class culture and work ethic, to values of individualism and self-reliance, to a
particular group of ethnic sub-cultures where the white immigrants such as the Poles, Irish and
Italians regard themselves as Amercian unlike the Asians – and not belonging: his rejection of his
family and of Catholicism, his overt racism towards his neighbours though he chooses to remain in
the neighbourhood where he once belonged, and his own inability to come to terms with his own
past and wartime experiences. The Hmong family in the movie and in particular the story of Tao and
the gang, show us how difficult it can be for new immigrants to overcome cultural and racial
stereotypes and take full part in the society they have come to at the same time as preserving their
own culture. The film shows Walt moving towards a wider sense of belonging: he retains most of
what was positive in the values of the past but an initial process of perception and recognition leads
to friendship, loyalty and bonding and a sense of his common humanity with people he once