Written by: Jenna Moloney
Gran Torino, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, is a dramatic film touching the subjects of racism, gangs, friendship, and death. Eastwood plays Walt, a bitter old man with an ominous voice who is mourning the death of his wife. He resides in a neighborhood that was once all-white, but has since been populated by Asian families. Walt is racist and wanting to be left alone, but over time he begins to develop a friendship with his young neighbors. After trying to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino, the young boy (Thao) works for him to make up for his wrongdoing. Thao and his sister, Sue, end up breaking down Walt’s walls and forming a close relationship with him. But the neighborhood becomes corrupt when a gang (Sue and Thao’s cousins) begins to taunt them. As it gets worse and worse, Walt steps in. Eastwood uses dramatic close-up shots, eerie lighting, and depressing music to communicate the awful effects a gang can have on a kind neighborhood.
Close-up shots allow a character’s facial features and emotions to be clearer. When the gang attacks Thao and destroys his tools, close-up shots are used to make the gang members seem more dominant and overpowering. When Walt punches a member of the gang on the ground until he is bleeding, close-up shots show the anger on Walt’s face as well as the helplessness on the victim’s face. When Walt finds out that the gang attacked Sue, he becomes so angry that it could only be communicated effectively through a close-up shot: the wrinkles, his furrowed eyebrows, and the catchlight in his unevenly squinted eyes make the shot almost terrifying. Another shot shows sadness in Walt’s face as he is in Church discussing his life with the priest. The tight frame of each shot leaves little room for the audience to feel anything but what Eastwood intended for them to feel. The emotion on the character’s face is the overwhelming majority of each shot.
The infamous close-up shot of Walt appearing livid (described in the above paragraph) adds so much emotion to the traumatic events toward the conclusion of the film. Another key factor in achieving this effect was the catchlight in his eyes. The uneven squinting of his eyes underneath his furrowed eyebrows is emphasized because of this catchlight. Anybody would fear the man in this shot. Eerie lighting was also used in other scenes of the film in different ways. When Walt turns on his ceiling light in his garage, it swings back and forth, suggesting somebody is in his garage. Although this is not a specific technique (but rather simply a swinging light), it pieces the scene together as a whole as it lets the audience know that someone else is in the garage. Lowkey lighting, especially in scenes involving the priest, creates a depressed mood. When the priest visits Walt’s house at the beginning of the movie, Walt is only shown through lowkey lighting. Contrasting greatly with the priest, who is naturally lit by the sun as he stands in the doorway, Walt is barely lit, portraying how bitter he is over the death of his beloved wife. Toward the conclusion of the movie, the opposite lighting for each character is used. When Walt goes to confession before he knows he is going to die, the priest is barely visible at all while Walt is clearly lit. This symbolizes that Walt is a “good man” because of what he is about to do for his neighbors, and the priest does not have any say in or power over the events that are about to unfold. Overall lighting of different scenes screams the obvious mood of each one individually and foreshadows events that will soon take place. For example, when Walt saves Sue from a few men on the street, the setting is naturally lit. The car ride home (with the same lighting) reveals that Walt and Sue have become somewhat friends and they have the ability to laugh and joke around together. The mood is uplifting and the audience is happy for Walt that he has found peace with his neighbors. In contrast, the scene where Sue is brought into her house unable to talk and covered in blood and tears is very dimly lit. The house really only has lowkey lighting coming from the ceiling (as normal house lights). The mood is extremely depressing and shocking. The very minimal lighting of the scene of Walt’s death foreshadows the fact that Walt is going to die. The entire scene is dark, the only noticeable lights are coming from the window of the gang’s apartment and the light on Walt’s hand as it is revealed that he was only holding a lighter, not a weapon. The different lighting techniques of the many scenes of Gran Torino are perhaps the most important part in the structure of this film because of their strong role in mood establishment and emphasis on important actions.
“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have [messed] with? That’s me.” -Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino (2008)
The heartbreaking conclusion of the movie is achieved not only through lighting, but also with the carefully-placed music and sound effects. While Walt is talking to and yelling profanity at the gang members, there is a drumbeat playing in the background. It sounds as if it is a military drumbeat, connecting back to the fact that Walt is a Korean War veteran and he is not afraid of anything, even death. While the guns are firing and the bullets are entering Walt, there is no music; the gunfire sound effects overwhelm the scene at that point. When Walt is falling to the ground at a slow motion pace, a sound effect of wind and then his body hitting the grass can be heard. When lying lifeless on the ground, upsetting music begins to play. The intense depressing emotion sets in and the audience has no choice but to feel heartbroken over the death of the main character.
Before his death, Walt is sure to carefully plan his will. This movie is one big “wink reference” in itself. The Gran Torino that Thao attempts to steal at the beginning of the film is what is left for him in Walt’s will at the end. The car here symbolizes the transformation of Walt from his once racist self to a man who wanted his Asian friend to have a nice car. The gang causing problems within the community will be going to jail for a long time for shooting a man that didn’t even have a weapon on him. Walt Kowalski had this planned, however, and that was exactly what he wanted. He was a smart man, and he was right: the gang shouldn’t have “[messed]” with him.