In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a man living in the borderlands. As a new widower, he lives on the border between life and death; as a victim of white-flight he lives on the border between traditional Midwestern culture and that of the Hmong, immigrants from Vietnam.  In looking across the border, Kowalski finds he has more in common with the Hmong than he does with his own family. This is because Kowalski is also on a third boundary, the divide between the traditional world of hard work and virtue, and whatever follows when those values are removed.

In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a man living in the borderlands. As a new widower, he lives on the border between life and death; as a victim of white-flight he lives on the border between traditional Midwestern culture and that of the Hmong, immigrants from Vietnam.  In looking across the border, Kowalski finds he has more in common with the Hmong than he does with his own family. This is because Kowalski is also on a third boundary, the divide between the traditional world of hard work and virtue, and whatever follows when those values are removed.

We meet Kowalski on the day of his wife’s funeral. She was a devout Catholic while Walt only attended church out of his love for her. Eastwood, who also directed, uses the scene at the church to show us the generational loss of tradition through Kowalski’s children and grandchildren.

Kowalski is a retired auto-worker who only drives Fords; his son drives a late-model Toyota.  Kowalski’s loyalty to his country and company has been lost in his son, though the obverse of this loyalty is the racism that accompanies his disdain for Japanese cars.

The degeneration of values is portrayed though Kowalski’s granddaughter. While her father has retained the work-ethic of the elder Kowalski, she has gained a sense of entitlement. Everything has always been given to her and she knows no better.

The funeral of Walt Kowalski’s wife is juxtaposed with the celebration of the birth of a child in the Hmong household next door. It is in this setting that one of the film’s basic themes is clarified when the grandmother bemoans the lack of a man in the home. There is a male in the house, the teenage boy Thao, but he is not a man in the sense he has not assumed the traditional male roles.

Thao’s sister Sue — who is contrasted with Kowalski’s spoiled granddaughter — coaxes, cajoles and charms Kowalski into a closer relationship with her family. Like Kowalski, she stands on the borderland between her family’s traditional Hmong ways and American ways. She is an idealist who respects the traditional values of her family but makes the accommodations needed to live in America such as learning the culture and the language.

By way of contrast, Thao cannot find his way as a man, a common problem among Hmong men as Sue explains, “The girls go to college and the boys go to jail.”

The major male role-models we see are the teenage boys who form a local gang. They have crossed the boundary from the old world to become outlaws in the new and attempt to initiate Thao into their gang by having him steal Kowalski’s well-preserved Gran Torino. Though Thao fails in his theft, he succeeds in beginning a relationship with Kowalski.

Kowalski teaches Thao about manly work including the gradual, life-long practice of the acquisition of tools and the value of duct tape, vice-grip pliers and WD-40. But most importantly, he instructs him on the art of manly profanity.

This last will offend some as Kowalski weaves a tapestry of racial slurs, profanity and homophobia, but along with this is taught a proper control of temper. Having been raised by a man who could weave such a tapestry of profanity, I wasn’t offended, instead finding these scenes to be some of the most humorous of the film.

I enjoyed this film but found myself wondering how it would’ve been without Eastwood, who carries with him Dirty Harry, in the lead role.

In the end, it seems to me that Eastwood is offering the traditional Midwestern ethic to those coming to this country as their best way of gaining entry while at the same time admitting — regretfully — that it is in the process of being abandoned.

Bobby Winters is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University.