Walt Kowalski draws his world in crass caricature as he deals with—and disengages from—the people around him.
Walt's priest is, in Walt's view, a "27-year-old virgin" who peddles superstition. His grandchildren are spoiled, disrespectful layabouts. The Asian-Americans who dominate his Detroit-area neighborhood? Merely an amalgamation of epithets: "Chinks." "Gooks." "Zipperheads."
Don't think he spares himself, though. In the mirror Walt sees an old-school Polish crank, a grizzled Korean War vet who wears his scowl like a medal. Burdened by his own unspoken past, he has no patience for people, no time for fools—and all people are fools. His heart has room for only his dearly departed wife, his dog, Daisy, and his pristine, polished, 1972 Gran Torino.
Or so he believes.
Then the fatherless Lor family moves in next door. At first, Walt welcomes them as he welcomes everyone: with a fearsome frown and an armful of disdain. But when Thao Lor, one of the family's two teenagers, gets entangled with a local Asian gang, Walt's forced to get involved. First, Thao tries to steal Walt's Torino as part of the gang's initiation. Then, when the burglary fails, the gang tries to assimilate Thao anyway. Members show up on the Lor porch and try to kidnap the boy, leading to an angry struggle in front of Walt's house.
Walt storms through his front door and points a rifle at the gang members. "Get off my lawn," he hisses.
And thus Walt becomes an unwilling neighborhood hero. The Asian community blankets his porch with gifts, and Thao's sister, Sue, invites him over for a barbecue. The neighborhood—led by the Lor family—begins to wrap its arms around the grumpy old man and, as a result, Walt's heart slowly makes space for some new residents.
Walt learns that his neighbors aren't "chinks," they're Hmong, a people from southeast Asia who relocated to America after the Vietnam War. He becomes acquainted with their customs, develops a fondness for their food and, slowly, almost unwillingly, an affection for them. Perhaps for the first time in a long, long while, Walt seems to be ... home.
"I have more in common with these gooks than my own spoiled, rotten family," he tells himself.
In turn, Sue tells Walt, "You're a good man." And though Walt denies it, Sue's right. Cranky though he may be, Walt spends a lot of time helping out, fixing the Lors' sink, repairing their ceiling fan and saving their children from all manner of gang-related threats.
While he takes a quick liking to Sue—a feisty fireball who calls him "Wally"—he has little regard for quiet Thao, until he watches Thao help a neighbor pick up some groceries she spilled. Eventually the two become friends—and then something that more closely resembles family. Through their relationship, we learn that the Lors and Walt do indeed have a lot in common: Both treasure tradition and old-fashioned values. Neither tolerate disrespect or excuse the behavior of street gangs.
Gran Torino's first scene takes place in a church, and Walt is a Catholic. But his is a reluctant faith, if it's really there at all. When his priest, Father Janovich, encourages him to go to confession, Walt says, "I confess I never cared for church much." He mocks the priest for claiming to understand life and death, and when Janovich notes that better men than Walt have been helped through confession and faith, Walt agrees—and then callously splices the f-word into the middle of "hallelujah."
After Walt tells the Hmong gang to get off his lawn, Janovich asks him why he didn't just call the police. "I prayed that they would show up," Walt replies coyly, "but nobody answered."
Yet Walt does eventually go to confession, and we learn that he's also willed his house to the Church—because, he says, that's what his late wife would want done. After the gang attacks the Lor house, Walt solicits advice from Janovich on what to do. And when Janovich suspects that Walt may try to violently take out the gang once and for all, the priest calls the cops and waits in front of the gang's house for hours in an effort to prevent unnecessary bloodshed. He leaves only when the police force him to.
When Walt asks Sue how the Hmong came to live in Detroit, she tells them the Lutherans helped her people relocate to America. "Everybody blames the Lutherans," Walt says. But the Lors are not Lutheran: They still adhere to a shamanistic belief system connected to, or perhaps synonymous with, Taoism. Walt catches a glimpse of a ceremony where participants cut the head off a chicken. Audiences see a shaman bless a newborn child during a ceremony in the Lor living room. The shaman also tosses what appears to be a cleaved horn carved with symbols on the floor. And he later "reads" Walt's personality. Sue informs Walt that it's rude to touch a Hmong person on the head, for it is there where the Hmong believe the soul resides.
Sue is propositioned by three random gangbangers who spout lewd, nasty comments. One of her assailants suggestively grabs his crotch. Taunting Thao, a guy makes obscene sexual motions.
Walt admits, in confession, that he once kissed another woman in 1968, despite the fact that he was married at the time. Walt's granddaughter showcases her pierced navel by wearing a revealing top to her grandmother's funeral. Walt's barber holds a pornographic magazine.
The only thing worse than killing a person, Walt tells us, is getting a medal for it.
He knows of what he talks. Walt stores a Silver Star in an old war chest—a memento from his time in Korea. He tells Thao he killed 13 men during the war, "maybe more," and sometimes mentions the terrible things he did—including killing people with shovels and using bodies as sandbags.
"Not a day goes by where I don't think about it," he tells Thao. "You don't want that on your soul."
Yet Walt rarely leaves his guns. He brandishes a rifle to encourage the gang to get off his lawn, and he points a pistol at another set of gangbangers who are bothering Sue. When the Hmong gang accosts Thao and grinds a lighted cigarette into his cheek, Walt uncovers the gang's hangout and beats up one of its members.
Violence tends to beget violence, and the gang retaliates by shooting up the Lors' house (Thao is grazed by a bullet) and raping Sue. We don't witness the sexual assault; we do see its aftermath. Sue staggers into her house, face bruised and bloodied, streaks of dried blood on her legs.
This makes Walt even angrier, and he tears through his kitchen, knocking holes in his cabinets and bloodying his knuckles. He contemplates his next move. "Whatever it is," he declares, "they won't have a chance." The next day, we see Walt's kitchen table weighted with weapons.
I'll save what happens next for my conclusion—watch for the spoiler warning—but rest assured: There is gunfire, and not everyone survives.
Elsewhere, several other characters brandish weapons, including Walt's barber.
Crude or Profane Language
Gran Torino earns its R right here, with characters uttering the f-word nearly 75 times and the s-word another 25. Jesus' name is misused about 20 times (a few times by the priest), and God's name is paired with "d--n" another half-dozen. Other curses pop up with regularity, but perhaps the most assaulting language consists of racial epithets. Walt casts countless slurs—many of which, frankly, I'd never even heard before.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Walt smokes a lot, even though several people ask him to quit. His favorite pastime is sitting on his front porch, smoking and drinking Blue Ribbon beer (several empty cans are typically stacked beside him) while he watches the world speed by. But the smoking, the film suggests, has caught up to the old man. We see Walt cough up blood several times—the insinuation being that he has lung cancer. (He refuses to go to the hospital to find out definitively.) Walt also catches his granddaughter sneaking a cigarette. Walt and the Lor grandmother chew (and spit) tobacco.
Several other characters drink—most notably Father Janovich. It's implied that the Lors' underage children and their friends drink, too.
Other Negative Elements
Walt never really connected with his natural family. And the whole Kowalski clan seems to be at fault for this. Walt may be a crusty old codger, but his sons and grandchildren all steer an unflattering course through Gran Torino. One son calls Walt to, ostensibly, see how he's doing—even though his real purpose is to snag some football tickets. Walt accuses a daughter-in-law of pawing through his wife's jewelry. The grandkids dress inappropriately, behave poorly, and one asks—on the day of her grandmother's funeral—if Walt would will her his Gran Torino. When Walt's grandsons rifle through Walt's trunk of Korean War mementos (without permission), one asks another, "Where's Korea?"
I'll begin my conclusion with a spoiler warning. I'm not fond of giving away big plot twists, but when morality and ethics are woven into them, there's little choice about whether or not they should be dealt with in a Plugged In Online review. (And director Clint Eastwood has—both to his credit and detriment—developed a well-known habit for weaving "worldview" issues into his movies.)
After his sister is raped, Thao is out for blood. He charges over to Walt's house and the two prepare, seemingly, for an assault on the gang's lair. Eastwood is setting us up for a Dirty Harry-style finale.
But Walt doesn't trundle down that well-worn path—a path we've already seen him take more than once.
Instead, he leads Thao to his basement, gives the boy his Silver Star and slyly locks him in, so that Walt can confront the gang alone. He stands at the gang's front porch, then cocks his finger and thumb, pointing and "shooting" at each member in turn. He scolds them for their immorality, their inhumanity. And then, as he reaches into his jacket pocket to pull out a lighter, the gang guns him down. Walt falls down dead, clothes riddled with bullet holes, arms splayed out as if waiting for an embrace.
He wasn't even carrying a gun.
The act is part suicide, part sacrifice—a riff on a theme Eastwood explored in Million Dollar Baby. But if Baby emphasized the suicide, Torino dwells on the sacrifice—in this case, a deeply meaningful one: Due to Walt's selfless act, gang members are sent to prison for murder. That frees the Lor family (and, by extension, the neighborhood) from their torment and abuse.
As a piece of thought-provoking, cinematic art, Gran Torino is near brilliant. In this taut, two-hour tale, Eastwood grapples with some of life's biggest questions: What is family? What makes a man? How can we fight evil when evil doesn't follow the rules?
These questions are complex, valid—and far too important to let one movie, no matter how well made, answer them for you. This film should spark struggle, not certitude in its audience.
Gran Torino has a car full of content issues. And they shouldn't be overlooked. (The aftermath of a rape. Beatings. Shootings. Obscenities. Abuses of Jesus' name. Racial insults.) But they don't entirely obscure the lingering questions: This is a haunting morality play, where characters grapple with eel-like ethical conundrums and search, in the end, for a bit of inner peace.
In this scenario, Walt found his peace. Should he have?