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Gran Torino (2008)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

One could say that Gran Torino explores racism, but really racism is almost a red herring in the film’s exploration of alienation, sacrifice, caring, gratitude, and giving. Some praise the film, and some have derided

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

By putting our judgments of others in the context of responsibility and maturity, Gran Torino encourages me toward a nuanced understanding of my judgments and their appropriateness. But even more, the film prompts me to examine the decisions I make based on my judgments, particularly in the light of vengeance, courage, grace, self-sacrifice, and my own limitations. On a slightly higher plane, Gran Torino makes me more sensitive to two important questions: how I will spend the life I have, and are my decisions driven more by my desire to judge and control or by my willingness to love and to sacrifice? But the film’s deepest impact for me is this: When I see Walt’s sacrifice, in a sense, absorb the gang’s evil into himself, it brings alive for me the disarming power of humility, grace, and self-sacrifice. It provides for me a fuel that I hope might spur me to more often live such qualities, allowing me to disarm animosity, fear, and ill-will that I encounter in my life.

Walt Kowalski’s curmudgeonly personality is the most prominent feature of Gran Torino. Walt just plain lacks patience and grace with others’ failures. While it’s true that he is quick with judgments and prejudices, the thing is, he often has a very good point. As we look to find fault in him, we’re caught short if we enter more deeply into Walt’s world. Why is he curmudgeonly? What, specifically, are the judgments he is making? What validity is there, if any, in his different judgments and attitudes? What substance is there in the judgments that others make of Walt? The result of asking such questions is to realize that, notwithstanding his biting ways of talking to people, Walt has good reason to be a curmudgeon. Around him, the world has indeed been deteriorating. These days, things just aren’t as they used to be, and his commitment to excellence and justice prevents him simply accepting it. The question is: How should he deal with it? How should we deal with it?

Walt calls it like he sees it — and he often sees it right

Walt sees deterioration of the world most closely in his boys and their families. Walt no doubt bears some responsibility for the way his boys have turned out. He effectively admits as much in his confession to Father Janovich when he says he didn’t know how to be close to them. Yet his boys accept no responsibility for their children’s behavior or their poor relationship with their father. They are blind to their own offenses. Ashley comes to the funeral with a bare midriff, and all the boys can say is that Walt is stuck in the 50s — they allow no possibility that Ashley’s dress might be inappropriate. Ashley’s play for Walt’s car was way out of line, and Walt’s response — to spit on the ground — expresses appropriate disgust. Mitch feigns interest in Walt’s life as a ploy for football tickets. When Mitch and Karen get thrown out on Walt’s birthday, they can’t believe it — they see no cause for offense in their ridiculous gifts or in their ploy to get Walt out of the house. Whatever Walt may have done to contribute to their immature ways, his boys are now adults and need to take responsibility for their own insensitivities and shortcomings. To be sure, Walt could be a kinder, gentler Walt in the face of their failings. His behavior feeds their attitudes and, by giving them an easy target for blame, Walt's demeanor contributes to their continuing inability to grow up. Nevertheless, he has a point.

With his Hmong neighbors, Walt has no shortage of racial epithets to sling, much of it arising from his failure to understand true cultural differences. But he has valid complaints here, too: They don't maintain their property, which takes down the value of his property. Thao represents a lack of ambition and direction that Walt appropriately finds detestable. As with his family, though, Walt's attitudes tend to feed animosity with those around him, as embodied most directly in Grandma's disdain for him. It doesn't build good neighborly relations to rudely send Thao away with no jumper cables, only to bring them out shortly after for one of his own. Again, he might be a kinder, gentler Walt, but the level of disrepair in the neighborhood is enough to upset any self-respecting, responsible homeowner.

Neither does Father Janovich escape Walt's appropriately critical eye. The priest wants to be friendly and chummy with Walt even though he has not earned Walt's respect. He presses Walt to go to confession before he really even knows Walt — he apparently promised this to Dorothy without realizing what a hornet's nest she was sending him into. When he presses Walt, Walt gives him an insightful bottom line: That what Father Janovich knows about life and death — as expressed in his "bitter in the pain, sweet in the salvation" homily at Dorothy's funeral — is pathetic. His homily was true enough so far as it went, but it had no depth of insight into this life or compassion for the reality of pain and grief. There's a difference with Father Janovich, however: Walt's vitriol doesn't feed a downward relational spiral. Father Janovich doesn't respond in kind. He questions Walt, he listens, he probes with suggestions ("Sounds like you know a lot more about death than you do living"), and he challenges Walt ("Why didn't you call the police?"). He takes what Walt dishes out, standing firm in the relationship without shrinking back and without becoming offensive himself.

Kids have no respect. Neighbors don't maintain their property. The church can't connect with reality. They don't make freezers the way they used to. As an observer of the world deteriorating around him, Walt lets the bad side of life turn him bitter toward nearly all of life — all but his dog, his barber, a few close friends, and his memory of Dorothy. The attempted theft of his car and the brawl on his front lawn raise Walt's defenses all the more. Further fed by his wrestling with two great failures in his life — his killing of the Korean boy and his failure of closeness with his sons — Walt's caustic nature tends to increase his difficulties with most of the people around him. Saying this is not to justify Walt's behavior but rather only to understand it.

Walt starts to see people differently

His first real encounter with Sue, in the truck after he saves her from the African-American gang, begins to open him up. Finally here is someone who can stand up to him, even while admitting her failures. She is not put off by his coarseness. She talks in a way Walt can understand and respect, standing up to his ignorance in a sassy, yet respectful, way. When Walt sees Thao's kindness when Mrs. V. drops her groceries, he's not sure what to make of it, but it stops him short. Then Sue brings Walt along one step further when she invites him to the Hmong barbeque. Once again, she is sassy, engaging, caring, and fun all at the same time. She is strong and good, and Walt can respect that.

In Walt's conversation with Youa in the basement, we get a bit more insight into Walt's character. He's the guy that fixes things — sometimes even before they're broken. He's in his element when he's fixing things, and this is a further clue to his bitterness: Walt maintains his own life, yet finds himself powerless to fix most of the world around him and unable to accept the world as it is. Still, he'll fix what he can. His manner of fixing begins with a hard-nosed look at reality, and if someone else is broken, he won't hesitate to tell them. He gives Thao just such a dose of reality by pointing out that Thao is completely blind to Youa's interest in him. Though Walt knows something about Thao's struggles to find his way (as Sue told Walt in the truck), he gives Thao no room for excuses.

When Thao is assigned to work for him, Walt gives Thao no slack. Then Walt realizes that he can use Thao to fix up part of the neighborhood. The man who fixes things finds power to fix where he thought he had none. He figures that he is just using Thao, but it turns out that he is giving Thao purpose and teaching him to work hard. By his last day of work, Thao is so enthusiastic about his newfound worth that he comes to Walt's door with a big smile and impatiently, incessantly rings the doorbell. After Walt expresses his displeasure with how many times Thao rang the doorbell, he tells Thao to take the day off. But Thao is disappointed. He was looking forward to the work. Walt had fixed him in a way that Walt's biting remarks never could have. But there's a glimmer of change in Walt, too. As Thao turns to go, Walt stops him saying, "Toad," but then says, "nothing...never mind" — it seems he was going to say something about Thao having done good work, perhaps even saying he deserved a day off. The hesitation captures well Walt's difficulty in expressing kindness and in making a change in his manner of relating to others, but it shows a start.

Walt's demeanor takes yet another step up when he sees Thao finding his own ways to fix up around his own house. When Thao asks for help with the faucet, Walt is more than ready to help, even giving Thao a basic home repair kit. Even against the backdrop of Walt's worsening lung disease, I felt hope rising as the character of Walt's biting remarks turned increasingly away from caustic condemnation toward endearing banter between friends ("Get me another beer, dragon lady."). Walt's relationship with Sue grows into a true friendship, and he's now thick into the process of fixing Thao. In multiple ways, he is manning Thao up, and Thao is taking to it.

Learning to "talk" like a man

A short digression is in order to address the barber shop "man him up" scene. One might well ask whether Walt teaching Thao to curse is a good thing. No, not in and of itself, but first there's a more important thing to realize: The question of profanity is a surface-level question, and there is a much more fundamental thing that Walt is doing that is definitely good. He is teaching Thao social skills for fitting into the broader culture around him. He teaches him to be confident and straightforward. He teaches him to be engaging and conversant. He teaches him to be respectful, fun, and light-hearted. And, he teaches Thao to curse. Yet, for us to look past the good he does and judge Walt because of the cursing is a cross-cultural failing on our part. In the culture among Walt and his friends, the context in which curse words and ethnic epithets are used determines whether or not the words are profane. Thao can't address Martin the same way that Walt does because Thao doesn't have the same relational context with Martin. Considering Walt's culture, there is a sense in which Walt is, in fact, teaching Thao not to curse — just as he would not allow Sue to curse. Perhaps Walt might be better if he learned not to curse, but more to the point, we should be slow in our cross-cultural judgments.

Walt is well on his way to fixing Thao and making an important impact on the neighborhood, but then Spider and the gang rough up Thao again. Walt is incensed, but he figures this is something he can fix. By giving Smokie a beating, Walt seems to feel that maybe now Thao has a chance. At the barbeque in his backyard with Vu, Sue, Youa, and Thao, Walt's demeanor has changed to the point that he seems downright happy, even letting Thao use the Gran Torino for his date with Youa.

Straight talk (and action) isn't enough to fix everything

Walt was wrong. He hadn't fixed it. After the drive-by shooting, while waiting to see what has become of Sue, it comes home to Walt that he's taken the fix-it thing too far. This ain't Korea. Walt says, "I knew this was going to happen. Tried to...What the hell am I doing here?" He begins to see the limits of "manliness" and his fix-it mentality. When Sue arrives home beaten, bloodied, and raped, Walt's transformation is sealed. He realizes that his escalation of the violence caused the attack — he curses at himself as he punches the glass cabinets in his kitchen. And he cries. For the first time in the film, Walt softens enough to cry as sits and thinks and feels. This time, when Father Janovich comes around, Walt tells him, "Call me Walt." It seems that Walt now gives more credibility to his perspectives. Father Janovich's message has been about confession and release — in essence, that grace, through the sweetness of Jesus' sacrifice, is the path to salvation. He has also admonished Walt to let the police handle it — that is, to let a higher power handle it. In being more open to Father Janovich, Walt is also being more open to spiritual principles like these. Walt has come to understand grace as a credible response to evil. The film portrays this most pointedly in that, just before his death, Walt prays, "Hail Mary, full of grace."

Walt learns a new type of action: sacrifice in love

Walt's transformation, does not turn him into a man of no action (obviously), it turns him into a man of different action. He is still about the business of fixing what he can, but he now sees sacrifice as the path to ending the cycle of violence. Had Walt not had cancer, would he have done what he did? Probably not, but the fact is that, confronted with the finiteness of his life, he chose to give his life away to free others. Violence and hate ran rampant through the Hmong neighborhood, embodied in Spider's gang. Walt's retaliation fed the fires of hate, escalating the violence. An eye for an eye, and the violence will continue, with nothing to quench it. Yet when one offers themselves to accept the violence without retaliation, some, perhaps all, of its energy is sapped. By absorbing the violence into his own person, Walt locks the violence and hate — spider's gang — away from an oppressed people.

In case anyone might think this a call for unconditional pacifism, we should remember that grace is a strength, and weakness can encourage violence. We must have discernment in how we exercise grace; wisdom is required to know when to take which course of action. Jesus said "turn the other cheek" and then he turned over the tables of the money changers. Earlier, Thao had told Walt, "I'll take it" — "it" being the insults that Walt might throw at Thao. Walt said, "Of course you'll take it because you have no teeth." Thao's way of weakness encouraged Spider's aggression. Yet we see in Walt's final way of "taking it" a "manly action" of the highest order.

Letting grace and sacrifice take root

Reflecting on Gran Torino, the ways of sacrifice and grace take deeper root in my heart. I have long understood Jesus' death on the Cross as a payment. It is, as Christians often describe, like a judge stepping down from the bench to pay an infinite fine owed by us as the offenders. It is, in this way, a transaction, a legal fulfillment of a debt we owe that we cannot pay. In response, we should offer the payment of grace to others because of the payment of grace made for us. This is all true enough, yet in its transactionality, there is a coldness to the payment metaphor. But the Cross is hot, visceral, and dynamic and, for me, Gran Torino gives rise to another, more powerful, metaphor for the grace we might offer to those around us. Grace is an absorption of hostility, as if a huge magnet on a battlefield might suck in all the bullets as they fly. As a payment metaphor, the Cross resolves God's wrath against us, but as an absorption metaphor, the Cross shows more viscerally how grace resolves evil: It actively consumes evil, without itself being defiled. Evil feeds on evil, and grace starves evil by letting it play itself out with no further evil to feed it. We all long for peace in the world and in our lives, and most often we cry out for that peace by calling for others to act rightly. Seldom do we call on ourselves to absorb evil by grace. I hope I will do this more now, having the picture emblazoned in my mind of Walt as he lay on the ground.

  • As people are gathering for Dorothy's funeral, Walt's son Steve says to Mitch, "The point I'm trying to make is that there's nothing anyone can do that won't disappoint the old man; it's inevitable" — this establishes a very important point about Walt's curmudgeonly nature and his racial epithets: It's not so much that Walt is racist (although there is certainly some of that), it's that he is fundamentally against everyone. Walt has seen enough deterioration around that people are guilty until proven worthy of respect.
  • Father Janovich's funeral homily for Dorothy is wonderfully crafted to sound nice at first, yet on reflection to be the light-on-substance pabulum that Walt critiques it as: "Death is often a bittersweet occasion to us Catholics. Bitter in the pain, sweet in the salvation. Bitter in the pain it causes the deceased and their families. Sweet to those of us who know the salvation that awaits. And some may ask, 'What is death? Is it the end? Or is it the beginning? And what is life? What is this thing we call life?' All of these questions can frustrate you. And that's why you have to turn to the Lord. Because the Lord is the sweetness."
  • During Father Janovich's funeral homily, Walt becomes frustrated with his Ashley's texting during the service, prompting him to caustically exclaim under his breath, "Jesus," right after Fr. Janovich says, "turn to the Lord." The juxtaposition of Walt's exclamation and its place in the flow of the homily allow it to take on three meanings: Walt's disgust with Ashley's behavior, Walt's opinion of the homily, and Walt's role at the end of the film.
  • The film's title and the name of the car make an oblique reference to the Christ theme: "Gran Torino" in Italian means "great Turin" — Turin being the home of the Shroud of Turin, which is said to bear the image of Christ.
  • The first shot of Walt's house immediately shows the contrast between the good care of his place and the poor care of the Hmong family's house next door — it is a stark contrast that supports Walt's displeasure.
  • In Mitch and Karen's interactions about Walt, the film portrays well a common situation and response to an offense. We are so busy being offended and complaining of the other's actions, we don't stop to see quite obvious ways that we contribute with our own offensive ways. I wonder how often I am that unaware of the offenses I cause.
  • Walt receives two readings of his life: first the newspaper fortune and then from Kor Khue. Appropriately, he is very dismissive of the newspaper, but he can't dismiss Kor Khue's reading. Walt is struck by Kor Khue's direct and personal insight into his life, including Walt's past regret. Walt is left speechless (for once). Making a three-way juxtaposition of these two readings with the progression of Father Janovich's reading of Walt's life, I see more clearly what Walt first complained of in the priest's approach. Though the newspaper fortune turned out to be a dead on reading of Walt's life, it was general and impersonal — Father Janovich at first offers only general spiritual principles (e.g., the Lord as "sweetness," the need for confession) in his attempts to enter into Walt's life. The principles are good and true, but general principles don't reach people's hearts. Gradually, Father Janovich moves toward the Kor Khue end of the continuum by speaking more personally into Walt's life (e.g., a suggestion that Walt might need to learn about life, simply listening as Walt alludes to his true burden from Korea, connecting with Walt's anger toward the gang). The personal and specific, with strong spiritual principles as a foundation, opens Walt to let Father Janovich impact his life.
  • Walt's preparations for the final showdown — we are thrown into wondering what mowing the lawn, a fitted suit, and a straight shave have to do with revenge against the gang, but then after, we can reflect on his preparations and see more deeply how calm, well planned, and intentional Walt's action was. This was no momentary impulse, it was, as the newspaper fortune had said, a deliberate "choice between two life paths."
  • Walt's confession to Father Janovich, along with their interaction afterwards, was well crafted to be real, yet to cause Father Janovich to play just the part Walt needed him to in the overall plan.
  • When Walt tells Thao, locked in the basement, about killing the Korean "kid" soldier, it is through the screen of the basement door — Walt's final confession.
  • In his homily at Walt's funeral, Father Janovich recognizes the growth he experienced through his interaction with Walt, which shows beautiful humility on his part — it makes me want to look more for what I can learn, even from those outside the church, rather than being so quick to judge them.
  • The end credits begin with Thao driving along the lake road in the Gran Torino. No more cars pass by until a couple of minutes of later, when another Gran Torino passes by, as if in salute or memoriam. Only when the second Gran Torino is out of sight does regular traffic start again. It seems a fitting and well-delivered tribute.
  • Gran Torino included a musical piece entitled "Psalm XVIII" by Benedetto Marcello. The Psalm has numerous themes that tie to the film's explorations, including:
    • "The foundations of the mountains were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry."
    • "He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies. From the brightness before Him passed His thick clouds, Hailstones and coals of fire."
    • "The snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord."
    • "With the pure You show Yourself pure, And with the crooked You show Yourself astute."
    • "He trains my hands for battle."
    • "I pursued my enemies and overtook them, And I did not turn back until they were consumed."
    • "You save an afflicted people, But haughty eyes You abase."
    • "Exalted be the God of my salvation, The God who executes vengeance for me"

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2008 by the filmmakers.


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"Backstory" talks speak of things behind the film. Go to "Before" or "After" talks for the film itself. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the backstory adds to the film's impact

The part of the story around Gran Torino that I want to focus on doesn’t so much add to its impact. It’s about the impact of film more generally, based on how we engage with it. There’s an interesting dichotomy of opinion about Gran Torino that relates very much to the perspectives behind these film talks

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