by Stuart Fernie
Is Walt Kowalski racist? I really don't think so. He's a grumpy old man in mourning, which only serves to accentuate his feelings of despair, disappointment and frustration, but he is also a man of principle and respect.
His family (two sons and their offspring) are seen as greedy, grasping, self-centred, insensitive, disrespectful and disappointing. They lack any real sense of grief at Walt's wife's funeral, are insincere and materialistic, yet they are not "bad" people - they are "normal". As Walt sees and disapproves of his family's manner at his wife's funeral, we (the audience) become aware of the gulf that has developed over the last fifty years, in terms of family values and manners, between the generations. Walt is presented as an honest, hard-working retired car factory worker whose family has grown in social status and position beyond that of their father. Yet, as they have grown apart, Walt's family (and, by extension, the rest of society) appears to have lost sight of many of the values and principles Walt and his generation grew up with.
Youngsters, in the shape of adolescent gangs, appear to have no cohesive force and have turned to gang mentality in an effort to build bonds and protect themselves and their fellow gang members from other gangs. Walt, however, grew up in a different age and fought with others during the Korean War during which he did and saw some terrible things, but this common experience appears to have brought about a sense of reflection, togetherness and unity which seems to be missing in today's society. Perhaps having to fight for freedom and a cause greater than oneself brought about a cohesion which is missing from today's society.
Walt's language is filled with non politically correct terminology, but I would suggest that it is descriptive rather than racist as it doesn't necessarily betray any racist intent or feelings. He treats everyone equally - whites, blacks, asian etc.. He is equally impatient and disapproving of lack of respect and principle, whatever the source. No-one is picked upon purely by virtue of their origin - everyone he criticises does something to upset his sense of fairness and respect.
Of course, he makes many outrageous statements, but these are delivered with no little humour and even affection. His scenes with his barber are racially quite awful, yet these men are friends. Clearly, this is considered a "man thing", with both participants refusing to show genuine friendship and affection, preferring to cover these feelings with insults. This may not be PC, but neither is it strictly speaking racist as neither is serious in his jibes. This is amusingly reflected in Walt's conversations with Thao and Thao's introduction to his potential employer on the building site.
The lack of respect and principle among the young, with its facade of "belonging" through initiation rites and peer pressure goes in a dubious illegal direction, but takes on a whole new scope with the attack on Thao's house and sister Sue. Walt holds himself responsible as he gave the gang intimidating Thao a taste of their own medicine and this escalates the level of threat and violence. This also serves to accentuate the cowardice of the gangs whose members bolster one another with bluster, and who act to please one another rather than be true to themselves.
In contrast, the Hmong (represented by Thao and Sue) go their own way and respect principle. Walt admires this and is slowly drawn toward them, realising he has more in common with his "Gook" neighbours than with his own family.
Apart from these themes of principle, racism, gang mentality, family values, and "man friendship", we also visit the theme of ageing in that older people can sometimes see things with a clarity that is often missing from the perception of younger members of society. This does not necessarily mean they are correct, but they will frequently dispense with PC language and the need to appease others by being more direct than might be considered polite. In this way, Walt and the Hmong Grandmother who lives next door to him are very similar.
It is also sometimes easier to be a role-model to someone outside your immediate family. Feelings of responsibility, obligation, embarrassment and proximity may prevent members of a family from truly appreciating the character and traits of their immediate kin.
Another important theme is that of religion. Walt is not a believer, but he comes to admire the determination of his "padre", a young and somewhat inexperienced priest. They learn from one another and come to a form of compromise - each realises that the other has a point, but that to be meaningful, this must involve some form of action.
This is a multi-facetted "intimate" story told with considerable humour and insight. The most successful films are generally those that touch an audience in that they feel they share sentiments and understanding, and to achieve this it is not necessary to spend a fortune on a big and brash production. "Less is more" is a common term applied to the theatre, and it appears to be a lesson Mr Eastwood learned long ago.
Cunningly made, dealing with universal themes but on a small scale, Eastwood builds sympathy and compassion with a series of "homely" sequences before catapulting the audience into high drama and having his characters make a final dramatic stand for what they believe in. Eastwood is a master of "slow burn" direction, steadily building character and slyly building themes before a dramatic conflict which brings the various themes sharply into focus and resolves the issues.
I recommend this warm-hearted and highly engaging film to everyone, and I look forward to adding it to my DVD collection.
I would be happy to discuss the film or my thoughts on it. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .