I loved this movie. I think it has a degree of introspection missed by many critics, and was unfairly overlooked during the awards season. Note that there are spoilers.
Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalksi, a retired Polish-American auto worker living in Michigan. We meet him just after his wife dies. Walt hates change, and yet sees change all around him. The Ford plant no longer provides a secure middle-class lifestyle, and his old neighborhood is crumbling: houses are poorly maintained, people are economically deprived, and gangs rule the street corners. And yet, stoic until the end, Kowalski stays put, despite his disgust at the ethnic minorities surrounding him, especially the noisy Hmong. A man’s man, he longs for what he sees as the honor and bravery of the Korean war, and mocks a young priest who tries to befriend him– on the grounds that he has nothing to learn from a virgin just out of the seminary. Likewise, he has nothing but contempt for white teenagers trying to act, dress, and talk like black gangster types– moreso even than for the black gangster types themselves! He is a proud American, and does not appreciate the influx of foreigners and their “barbaric” traditions. Estranged from his children, he can barely conceal his contempt for his boorish and disrespectful grandchildren. For everything that displeases him, he emits a low guttural groan. He groans a lot.
At this point, we should step back for a second. The picture I have painted is of a uniquely unlikeable man, almost a caricature. But the fact that Kowalski is played by Clint Eastwood makes all the difference. For we know this character so well. Imagine taking Josey Wales or Harry Callahan, transporting him to the present, and dropping them in the middle of multi-ethnic working class Michigan. This is Walt Kowalksi. He is a tough guy– as an old man, he is still capable of standing up to to various ethnic gangs, and his pithy one-liners delivered down the barrel of a gun evoke a bygone era of macho toughness. To put it bluntly, he takes crap from nobody. He will not be lectured by priests to go to confession, by his children to stop smoking and move to a retirement community, and he sure as hell will not let Hmong gangs bring violence to his street.
And yet, Walt mellows. His vitriol melts. He befriends the Hmong family living next door, a family appreciative of his efforts to stand up to the Hmong gang even though he is initially irritated by this new-found warmth. He becomes especially close to Thao, the son of the family, and the person the gang is trying to recruit. Thao is quiet and sensitive, easily-led and with no clear prospects. An obvious target. Kowalski was first introduced to Thao when he caught him trying to steal his prized Gran Torino car, a failed gang-initiation rite. He soon takes the young man under his wing, and becomes something of a father figure, teaching how to work in construction and getting him a job.
But the Hmong gang has not gone away. Angered by Thao’s betrayal, they kidnap, torture and rape his sister, a mere teenage girl. Thao is understandably furious, seething with anger. He wants revenge, and sees taking revenge as part and parcel of the “manliness” training he is receiving from Kowalski. After all, Walt is the fearless neighborhood tough guy, the war veteran who is never far from one of his menacing guns. Thao wants to go and hit the gang house immediately. Walt pleads for time, arguing that impetuous acts tend to go wrong. He thinks and he broods, while sitting at his kitchen table cleaning his shotgun. At this stage, it seems clear how this movie is going to end. After all, this is Clint Eastwood in character. We’ve seen it so many times. We’re waiting for it. We know how it will end. Or do we?
Walt is troubled. He pretends otherwise, but he is. He starts coughing blood, but tells nobody. But as a lifelong smoker, he fears the worst. He goes to see his doctor, finding that the expected white male has been replaced by a young Asian-American woman. As he sits in her office, Walt just seems confused and out of his depth. He can no longer relate to the world around him. Even more than this, there is something on his conscience. Although he talks proudly of the Korean war, it turns out he deliberately shot a man who was walking toward him to surrender. Not a day has passed since the Korean war when he doesn’t think about this. And yet, he can’t come clean. He finally agrees to go to confession, but confesses a litany of trivial peccadilloes. As he befriends the Hmong, he latches onto the fact that they were the allies of America in the Vietnam war. There is a limit to much he can admit to himself.
In the end, Walt does indeed go (alone) to the Hmong gang’s house. He stands before them, and calls them out, mocking and challenging in a way only Eastwood can deliver. They know who he is, having last seen him through the barrel of his shotgun. They know he is Thao’s new friend. From inside their house, they are nervous. Walt is serenely calm and fearless. The commotion is such that all the neighbors are watching with nervous anticipation. In a touch of irony he props a cigarette into his mouth and impishly asks for a light. Now they are even more on edge. Walt slowly reaches into his jacket pocket, and they open fire. Walt falls down dead, clutching his lighter in his hand.
Walt Kowalski sacrificed himself for Thao. For this public act of murder, in front of so many witnesses, caused the gang to be arrested, freeing Thao and his family from their clutches. The genre made popular by Clint Eastwood has thus been turned on its head. Instead of taking out the bad guys in a bout of triumphal violence, Kowalski embraces non-violence, and saves his friends not by killing but by laying down his life for him. A beautiful Christian message. But it is more than that. Gran Torino is a nostalgic movie. It is about how America is changing, and how the old culture of men like Walt Kowalski is passing away, as America opens itself up to new waves of immigrants who bring new ways of thinking. After initially rejecting this change, the archetypal Clint Eastwood character makes his peace with it. This is cemented when Kowalski leaves his precious Gran Torino not to his own family, but to Thao. More importantly, he acknowledges that violence is not always the answer, both on a personal and national level. He finally owns up to doing wrong during the Korean war and admits to being haunted by it. The movie makes it patently clear that these third-rate Hmong cartoon villains are no match for Kowalski, but he does not use violence against them. Likewise, the movie seems to be saying, the time for America using violence instinctively must pass. This is part of the new America than Walt has come to terms with, and the viewer is urged to do the same.