Gran Torino, Cruising to Classic Status

16mm Shrine

Christian Luna

Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino is directed by the acclaimed actor and director, and Eastwood also stars as the movie’s protagonist. The film was released on January 9, 2009 and it grossed $148,095,302 in revenue. This placed the film as the highest grossing Clint Eastwood film of all time, though that doesn’t take inflation into account. Gran Torino has won 20 awards and was nominated for 18 more, including a Golden Globe. It maintains a 8.2 star rating on IMDB, and it is ranked in the top movies on the same website database. The movie not only features the talents of Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski, but also Christopher Carley as Father Janovich, Bee Vang as Thao, and Ahney Her as Sue.

The title of the movie comes from Walt Kowalski’s unique car, which is his prized 1972 Gran Torino. A great way to begin a discussion of this new film classic is to start towards the end when Father Janovich is delivering the eulogy at Walt’s funeral.

Walt Kowalski once said to me that I knew nothing about life or death, because I was an over-educated, 27-year-old virgin who held the hand of superstitious old women and promised them eternity. Walt definitely had no problem calling it like he saw it. But he was right. I knew really nothing about life or death, until I got to know Walt…and boy, did I learn.

Just like Father Janovich, we also get to know about a Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski: we also see that as Walt loses his life, he begins to embody what Jesus says when he preaches that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). In this film, Walt both loses and saves his life. But how?

When the movie begins, Walt is an old and cantankerous man who lives in a rundown neighborhood in Detroit. His neighborhood used to be inhabited by white working-class Americans, but has since become inhabited by the Hmong people from Indochina. The movie starts with the funeral for Walt’s wife, where we are introduced to Walt’s family. We quickly learn that Walt isn’t close to his sons or his grandchildren, who he believes are spoiled and (perhaps correctly) only want his things.

A little while later, Walt wakes up in the middle of the night to find the neighbor boy, Thao, trying to steal his prized 1972 Gran Torino. Walt is very angry with Thao, but he later saves the young man and his family from the gang members who persuaded Thao to steal the car in the first place. Walt begins by forming a bond with Thao’s sister, Sue. The rest of the movie follows Walt taking Thao under his wing and helping out his family. All of this ultimately leads to Walt’s own redemption.

The movie is by no means “Christian” in the typical use of the word. Walt spends most of the movie gripping about religion, and the movie can be decently vulgar. Walt is often shown drinking, and one scene shows a table covered in beer cans. Walt also is incredibly racist, and he uses racial slurs for everyone who is not white. Last but most importantly, Walt is long-embittered by his experiences in the Korean War. In all, Walt is a very rough man who needs redemption.

However, several characters throughout the movie serve as a voice of reason for Walt. We see it come from Sue at times, and from Father Janovich. We see Walt’s humanity come back slowly, until one scene before the climax of the movie where Walt actually looks happy and at peace. Soon after, Walt goes to the church and confesses his sins to Father Janovich, fully redeeming himself in virtue before redeeming himself in action.

Walt Kowalski embodies the American Hero. He is the same type of man as the Deer Slayer, or the Lone Ranger. He is a lone gunman, trying to do what is right in his own eyes. He is not a saint, but he is a good man. Throughout the film, Walt pulls out a gun. He pulls it on Thao when he tries to steal his car. He pulls it on the gang when they attack Thao at his house. He pulls it on the thugs who are harassing Sue. But, Walt is a good man. Never once in the movie does he pull the trigger. He is the type of man who knows how to use a gun, and you know it. In his own words, Walt addresses this. When Sue was being harassed, Walt says, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have f_ed with? That’s me.” He makes threats, but he does what is good. He is a fixer, and that is his intention throughout the movie.

The soundtrack helps with this idea. Every time Walt pulls out a gun and does something that every other character would deem cray, the soundtrack plays military drums. That’s it. The only other times in the movie that we hear music are when we see Walt’s emotional reaction to Sue being raped, and after Walt dies to stop the gang. This helps with the idea that Walt isn’t happy. He is emotionless for the most part, but he’s holding onto this bitterness. The only time he comes alive is when he becomes that soldier he once was. That is what he knows how to do the best. And the rest of the soundtrack is to show how Walt cares about his neighbors, and to show how Thao and Sue feel about his death.

The story is one of redemption. It is a redemption for Thao, as Walt tries to not only reform him but to be a surrogate father to the younger man. However, the Gran Torino is also the story of Walt’s redemption as well because he has made mistakes in his life. One mistake that Walt regrets is that he was never close to his sons. Towards the end of the film, we see Walt confessing his sins to Father Janovich when he says, “I was never close to my two sons. I don’t know them. I didn’t know how.”

However, before the end of his life, we learn that Walt’s biggest regret is far deeper than not being there for his sons. When Thao wants vengeance against the gangsters who raped and beat Sue, Walt lets Thao hold his old Korean War rifle, then puts his medal on the younger man. Walt then tells Thao,

You wanna know what it’s like to kill a man? Well, it’s goddamn awful, that’s what it is. The only thing worse is getting a medal… for killing some poor kid that wanted to just give up, that’s all. Yeah, some scared little gook just like you. I shot him in the face with that rifle you were holding in there a while ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, and you don’t want that on your soul.

Walt leaves Thao confined in his home so he can then confront the gang both alone and unarmed. The gangsters kill Walt, and this enables the police to arrest them so that Thao and Sue can be free of the gangs. As Walt gasps his last breath, he is stretched out on the cold ground like Jesus on the cross, and this serves as a symbol that this act has fully redeemed Walt for his past sins and mistakes (including what happened in Korea).

Not only does Walt reform Thao and steps in as a father figure to the younger man like he was never able to for his own sons, Walt at the end of the film dies for Thao so that Thao can have a chance to survive in the world. The last scene of the movie is Thao cruising in Walt’s old Gran Torino that he had earlier tried to steal: in the car, Walt’s dog is in the seat beside him, and Thao is looking at the road ahead…confident that his future will be his own. More than the car, this is Walt’s ultimate gift for Thao.

Gran Torino is a very good film, and I recommend it and would watch it again. The movie might be a very young classic, but it is cruising comfortably towards classic status nonetheless.