Clint Takes us for a Ride

Eastwood’s Gran Torino ticks all the boxes of a stereotypical immigration-is-good film

Film Immigration Modern Life North America Social Affairs

Why, in the lexicon of movie issues, does the subject of immigration figure so low? Immigration is something that touches or preoccupies most people in one way or another. There’s a rich vein of dramatic potential to be mined – in social dislocation, cultural unfamiliarity and conflict both trivial and violent. When it does form either the backdrop or narrative of a film, you can be sure that the tone throughout, or the ultimate conclusion – even if the film fancies itself as “frank” and “edgy”, such as in the case of Oscar-winner Crash – will still be along the lines of teaching the world to sing with one voice. Why can’t we just get along, goes the plaintive cry? After all, far more unites than separates us, Coke is the real thing, etc.

There are three reasons, perhaps. First, the struggle of people in a new land is seen as inherently dramatic. There are those all-important obstacles to overcome – more often than not, negative attitudes on the part of the hosts – which, any properly equipped screenwriter will tell you, are essential to your story “arc”. Second, it would not occur to most of these writers or directors to approach it any differently, so steeped are they in political orthodoxy. This means that the immigrant will largely be well-meaning and come up against boneheaded racism or exploitation. Stephen Frears’s much-praised Dirty Pretty Things – with its cast of blameless illegal workers and music-hall villains from the Home Office, is a perfect example.

But the final reason might have more to do with pure commerce. If you’re the head of a studio, you’ll think twice about alienating massive sections of your potential audience, especially at a time when more and more movies are being made with 14-year-old Mexican boys in mind. Hispanic immigration into the US is, for better or worse, of momentous import right now, and that means box office. Best perhaps to attempt to be all things to as many people as possible-to make your message, well, universal.

That would encompass then the Hmong. These little-known south-east Asian people are among the foreign faces who have transformed Clint Eastwood’s Detroit neighbourhood in Gran Torino, the first film which he has both directed and starred in since taking home the Academy Award for Million Dollar Baby five years ago, and which has been much praised in the US. Eastwood plays Walt, a retired car worker and Korean war veteran, an irascible old rooster who keeps his lawn clipped and his nose clean and who sees around him a rising tide of decay, violence and alien voices. His pride and joy is the immaculately maintained 1972 car of the title, which sits gleaming in his garage until one day, one of his new neighbours, the young, shy Thao tries to steal it.

I wonder how good you are at guessing what comes next. Do you think perhaps that after this bungled attempt, Walt and Thao start to build some sort of relationship, grudging and hostile at first, but which gradually warms? That, as a result, they both learn something about themselves? Especially Walt?

You’re dead right, of course, but your assumptions would have been made easier by all sorts of tricks along the way. The almost comical sound of Walt growling through gritted teeth, as he suffers the falling standards all around him, is added to the soundtrack. He’s an unapproachable control-freak, feared and disliked by his own family, who are also pretty useless. His seems to be the only house in the street flying the stars and stripes. His hostility to his neighbours is so unyielding that any inroads they manage to make could only be positive. Underlying all of this is the popularity of Eastwood’s star persona – Mount Rushmore shot through with a wide streak of Cool – which ensures that the racial slurs his character spits out could only ever be skin deep. We are on his side from the start, but only because we assume that Clint’s too big a man to actually mean the insults to hurt. We can actually laugh along with him.

This is a cop-out. There is surely a film to be made which takes as its theme the disorientation and dismay of, say, an averagely tolerant elderly couple in an area transformed by immigration, against the background of a culture which has effectively silenced their concerns. This is an everyday experience for many people after all, and yet it has had no artistic representation – film, theatre, novel – of any kind. But to offer one would be to accept that they might have a point, and our fearless, provocative arts community is not quite cutting-edge enough for that. Instead, it is easier to make your protagonist damaged in some way.

The rage felt by Michael Douglas in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down as he made his way across an increasingly unfamiliar Los Angeles was undercut by giving his character a history of serious mental illness. Similarly, your average BBC drama on the subject sees no middle ground between the immigrant’s perspective and the incipient fascist’s.

All this means that films such as Gran Torino, however well made and absorbing, merge into the general cultural slush. Walt indeed finds that he has more in common with the people he has daily derided. He is redeemed. The film ends with some unexpected melodrama, but offers no real surprises. And within five minutes, we’ve forgotten it.