The Themes of Anger and Love in Gran Torino



Gran Torino follows an older man’s journey out of isolation. Walt Kowalski is angry and emotionally disconnected. Retired from Ford, Walt is part of a dying breed of men who worked one job in manufacturing. At his wife’s funeral Walt stands stiffly in his suit,  confused by his grandchildren’s attire. The kids have no idea in which war he fought or why he served. His snarliness, ethnic slurs and stoic demeanor make him an embarrassment to his sons. His cultural values are holdovers from the 1950’s. He carries prejudices. He is the sort of person we might call culturally irrelevant. 

His children are stereotypes of white, upper middle class culture. Sons Steve and Mitch and daughter-in law Karen seem more interested in relegating him to a retirement community and getting their hands on the house.  Granddaughter Ashley is interested in his Gran Torino but not in him. Grandsons Daniel, David and Josh find him sort of amusing and are interested in his war service but he’s not willing to discuss that with them. He seems content to be left alone with his dog and his bitterness.

The Gran Torino is a cool car and serves as a reflection of who Walt really is, or used to be. He’s had it for years, but like his soul, it’s been garaged. He doesn’t drive it, he doesn’t share it, it just sits. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten rid of it because it represents a time of hope and productivity in his life. It may be from another generation but it still has life in it and is certainly not irrelevant.

The demographics of Walt’s neighborhood have changed. He doesn’t know his Asian neighbors and rejects their friendly overtures. At first he rejects their overtures but after Sue’s brother Thao attempts to steal the Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation Walt finds it impossible to keep his neighbors at arm’s length any more. Eventually Walt is disarmed by the acceptance and patience shown him by his Asian neighbor Sue and Father Janovich, his wife’s priest. Just as his tools hang in place in his garage waiting to be useful, Walt has left his ability to socially engage hanging until he finds someone who really needs “fixing.”  Because his sons cannot accept him, flaws and all, he has been unable to father them; but through his relationship with Thao he is able to find the significance as a father that he could not find with his sons. He ends up allowing Thao to work for him as restitution and takes on the task of helping him learn how to “be a man.” This journey with Thao leads Walt toward social and emotional engagement.

Before she died Walt’s wife asked Father Janovich to get Walt to confession. Though Walt continually rebuffs the priest he keeps trying to engage Walt in conversation about faith. Father Janovich and Walt share a concern for the neighborhood and this leads to talks that enlighten both men. Walt becomes more open to faith while Father Janovich is challenged to discover a more realistic application for his beliefs.

Walt seems like the perfect candidate for a vigilante. In fact, the movie builds up that expectation. His neighborhood has been invaded by gangs. He feels resentful and angry. He’s at odds with the culture that surrounds him yet he feels a moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Just as he had as a soldier in Korea, at 78 Walt discovers the need to fight again for freedom of people from a culture he does not fully understand. He could be just another tough loner exacting revenge but Walt is different. He is in a unique position to rid the neighborhood from this evil and to offer Thao and Sue peace and hope. In the end his redemption comes in releasing anger and choosing loving sacrifice over vengeance. This is underscored by the position of his body, he lies, arms outstretched, not unlike Christ on the cross.  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jn. 15:13

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