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  Gran Torino (2009)
  Issue: 73   Page No: 23   Updated: 12/27/2010 10:00 AM
Author:  David A. Thomas
Topics:  Family , Race/Racism
Type:  Movie Review

Christian Ethics and the Movies

Reviewed by David A. Thomas,
Prof. of Rhetoric, Emeritus,
University of Richmond[1]

Aging, Family, and Racism:
Gran Torino (2009)

Walt Kowalsky: Get off my lawn!

Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood parable of peace and redemption, a tale of a certain father who had two sons. It is a Christ-image film. There is even a crucifixion image. To explain in detail would be to spoil the movie, if you haven’t seen it. Hopefully, my critique can illuminate the significance of the movie without completely spoiling it.

The movie reads like a play. It revolves around a classic conflict raging between an aged, profane, tyrannical patriarch, Walt Kowalsky, and his neighbors. Like King Lear, he cannot understand or accept the changes occurring within society, his neighborhood, and his grown children who have moved away. Although the story depicts some violence by tough street gangs, Walt’s fiercest battles take place within his flinty heart. A failed father of his own sons, he becomes a reluctant father figure to Sue and Thao Lor, the fatherless teenage Hmong girl and boy door.

            Walt despises the reality that his neighborhood has changed. He is the only white person remaining as the result of an influx of ethnic groups moving in around him. He is isolated, surrounded by Blacks, Hispanics, and other minority enclaves. His own nearest neighbors are Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia, whom he lumps in his mind with the Chinese and North Koreans he had to fight against in the Korean War fifty years ago.

            Walt is a retired Ford assembly plant worker in Detroit. He has lived in the same modest neighborhood for the past half century. As Gran Torino opens, Walt is listening to the baby-faced young priest preaching his wife’s funeral sermon before a small congregation of the few remaining family members and friends he has left. His two forty-something sons are present, together with their wives and children, who are obviously there only under duress. The kids are dressed in casual play or school clothes. Their college-aged daughter shows up with a bare midriff, showing her pierced navel. (Later, this spoiled brat asks Walt if he will give her his Gran Torino to drive to college!) Walt mutters imprecations against the priest and the attendees under his breath.

            Walt spends his days with Daisy, his old golden Labrador, fixing things around the house, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer alone (or sometimes with a few buddies at the local bar), and terrorizing the neighbors. His only friend is a white barber who gives him a monthly $10 haircut. These two men love to joke and swap racist, profane insults.

            To call Walt a crusty old curmudgeon is too kind. He is a sneering, angry, unreconstructed foul-mouthed bigot. He bombs you with the F-word, but his most profane language consists of the wide-ranging epithets he constantly uses to refer to his neighbors. He says what he thinks about the “slopes, gooks, and zipperheads,” whether you want to hear it or not. He still has his M-1 rifle from Korea, which he readily uses to threaten the teenagers who encroach upon his tidy postage-stamp lawn.

            His house is the only one on the block that is still well maintained. His push mower still works like the proverbial sewing machine. In his garage is his prize possession, a mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino that he helped assemble in the factory, along with his workshop stocked with all of the tools he ever owned. In his basement he keeps his footlocker with a few old snapshots, along with the Silver Star he earned in combat.

            Emotionally, Walt is tightly wrapped within the thick scars of his lifelong deep pain. He curses anyone who attempts to reach out to him, including his own children and grandchildren, who, naturally enough, despise him in return. The young priest persistently tries to persuade Walt to honor his late wife’s last request that he drop by the church to make his confession. Walt summarily rebuffs the young Irish priest: “I confess that I have no desire to confess to a 27-year old virgin just out of seminary who fools superstitious old women with promises of eternity.” Eventually, though, the priest manages to engage Walt in a serious conversation. They share their ideas of the meaning of life and death. Walt has a lot clearer grasp of the meaning of death than he does of how best to live his life. He hints that ever since the Korean War, he has carried guilt over more sins than just the enemy soldiers he killed in face-to-face combat.

            The plot is driven by the neighborhood conflicts generated by the Hmong, Hispanic, and Black gangs. The Lor family next door tries to keep their own teenagers, Sue and Thao Vang Lor, free of the gangs. Their no-good cousins won’t leave them alone. The gang keeps hectoring these two good kids to join their delinquent activities. Walt tries to stay out of it. His only involvement is to try to keep their noisy rowdiness from spilling over onto his property.

            The story advances when Walt catches the hapless neighbor boy, Thao, in his garage late one night trying to steal his treasured Gran Torino as his initiation into the gang.

            Humiliated, the Lor family makes Thao apologize to Walt, and insists that Walt give Thao a lot of chores to make up for his crime against him. Initially, Walt wants nothing to do with the boy. Little by little, he shows the boy how to use his tools to fix things around the neighbors’ dilapidated houses. Meanwhile, the precocious, pretty Sue manages to lure Walt to a backyard barbecue with the offer of beer. To his surprise, Walt learns to like the taste of their chicken and dumplings prepared with the traditional Hmong recipe.

At this party, Walt is asked if he would like for the Hmong elder to “read” him. When he agrees, the old man gives him an earful, including his opinion that Walt’s main problem is that he has no peace within, and that is the reason he cannot find any peace in others. Walt muses, this old man knows me better than my own kids do. This moment is the first sign of honest self-awareness he displays.

            Soon events escalate, and things get a lot worse for the Lor family. The Hmong gang drives by their home one night and sprays it with a fusillade of bullets. Thao is slightly hurt. Sue is abducted and brutalized. The family asks Walt to help protect them from the violent gang that is now targeting them. Nearly eighty, even with his antique rifle, Walt realizes that he is outmatched by a carload of doped-up gangbangers with automatic pistols. In the story’s climax, Walt has to decide how best to respond to the threat. What he does is truly surprising, resulting in a tragic denouement of personal sacrifice and redemption. In the process, Walt must become the protector and the mentor to Thao and Sue Lor that he was never able to accomplish with his own sons. At the same time, justice is served. Even the priest admits that Walt, despite his philippics, had taught him some valuable lessons in an unexpected final act of great courage.

            Critique of the Movie. Clint Eastwood, at first glance, plays a parody of himself from his earlier Dirty Harry and the Gunslinger in his early spaghetti Westerns like Hang ‘Em High. Apparently, he is woefully out of place in this small drama. Be patient: Clint Eastwood, the producer, director, and star of this perfect little gem, knows exactly what he is doing by using his image to draw in the viewer. Eastwood is surrounded by an anonymous and mostly amateur cast, so you think you know what is going to happen in the end. Then wham! You’re dead wrong.

            Like all great plays, Gran Torino is a character study. The main protagonist is locked in a mortal conflict over some major core values. It is an ethical study because the conflicting values require the main character to choose which path of life to follow in one climactic gesture. Walt chooses an act that affects his neighbors, his family, and his own faith and philosophy of life, knowing his decision has major consequences for all concerned. Surprising as it seems, Walt’s decision is true to his character.

            Does Eastwood pull it off? Can he convince you that, in the end, in this, his valedictory acting job in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood is really Walt Kowalsky, a neighborhood jerk who happens to strongly resemble a persona known around the world? Can we suspend our disbelief, and recognize that Walt is just as human as the rest of us? Just as human as bashful Thao and saucy Sue Lor, played as they are by kids who have never acted in the movies before, struggling with very real and dangerous issues that they cannot possibly cope with alone, but who never give up? Could it be that salty old Walt, supremely certain in his cynical views of life, realizes way down in his soul that he does not have all the answers either, but must go through the same character arc as everyone else? Above all, can we accept that even such a man can be redeemed, and through his transformation, become an instrument of redemption for others? You be the judge.

            Ethical Implications. This movie is about changing demographics, suburban decline and racial shifts across boundaries, foreigners, and violent gangs. It is also about family dysfunctions, aging, parenting issues, and the nature and significance of a religious faith, among one’s resources for coping. Gran Torino revolves around the central metaphors of gang violence and racial conflicts that come with unwelcome assimilation.

            The families in the movie, both Walt’s and the Lors next door, are microcosms of the impact of those inexorable forces moving through the world today. Walt cannot fathom the vital dynamics beneath the surface of things. His defense mechanism is to cling to his past, even though not much has worked out the way he wanted. Just as he once heroically fought the North Koreans, he thinks he must now fight the ethnic Hmongs and the other punks who make up what he sees as the inferior races that constitute the immediate world he now lives in. As a father, Walt rejected his sons because they opted to live their lives according to their own view of a successful life in society and rejected his view, because they drive foreign cars, and permit their kids to have body piercings. Being Boomers, they telegraph a sense of entitlement that Walt refuses to grant to them.

            His beautiful Gran Torino, lovingly washed and polished every week, symbolizes what Walt Kowalsky most prizes in life, hanging on to good quality old things, and trying to preserve the stability of the old ways, now gone for good. The Lor family, and all the Hmongs, represent the inevitable incursion of the Other into one’s personal space, the foreign, the unfamiliar, the potential for danger, and in general, the need to adjust.

            Gran Torino is a movie about peace and redemption. There are divisions, spiritual pollution, and evil that must be dealt with. The church, embodied in the role of the young priest, also has to adapt its abstract, Pollyannaish message of death as “bittersweet—bitter because we mourn the loss, but sweet because it brings heaven,” to embrace a new form of faith that offers peace through reconciliation in this present life, with one’s neighbors as well as with one’s family, and especially, within oneself.

[1] David A. Thomas retired in 2004 and now resides in Sarasota, FL. He invites your comments at 

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Thomas, David A.. "Gran Torino (2009)" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Winter 2009 (Issue 73 Page 23)
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