Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino) – Hero’s Journey
The Mundane World
Walt Kowalski is a bitter man. His beloved wife has just died, he’s being hassled by her overzealous priest, his grown children are ungrateful and condescending and his grandkids are spoiled brats. Walt is also fed up with the changing face of his Detroit neighborhood. The area, which used to be populated by white, working-class people like Kowolski, is becoming a haven for immigrants. This doesn’t sit well with the grizzled Korean War vet, who’s set in his ways and extremely racist. His world is being invaded by people different from himself, and we hear him grumble – colorfully – about many ethnic groups throughout the film. He is especially irritated by his next door neighbors, a Hmong family called the Vang Lors. All Walt wants is to be left alone with his dog, beer, and old-school worldview.
The Call To Adventure
Hmong gangs control the neighborhood, and they repeatedly try recruit Walt’s young neighbor Thao Vang Lor. Thao is a shy boy who prefers to keep to himself. This doesn’t sit well with his gang-banging cousins, who rough him up and berate him for not wanted to join their posse. One day, some gang members give Thao a hard time while he’s working in the yard. Walt hears the commotion and comes outside with a shotgun, scaring away the gang and earning unwanted status as a hero among the Vang Lor clan. Family members shower his porch with gifts to show their gratitude for saving Thao. Although Walt doesn’t appreciate the Vang Lors’ presence, he feels a strong sense of responsibility to protect his neighborhood.
Crossing the Threshold
Unfortunately, the gang eventually gets to Thao, and they persuade him to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino. While trying to do so, Thao is discovered by Walt, who threatens him at gunpoint. Thao’s family orders him to work for Walt as atonement. At first the old man sees Thao as a nuisance. He gives him tedious tasks and regards him with disdain and not-so-thinly-veiled racism. As they spend more time together, however, Walt develops a gruff fatherly connection with Thao and his family. He learns about Hmong culture and helps the Vang Lors fix up their house.
The Path of Trials
While driving one day, Walt flashes a gun and scares away some men who are harassing Thao’s older sister Sue. While Walt begins to build a relationship with his neighbors, his personal life takes a hit when he finds out he has lung cancer. Never one to complain, Walt is not sure how to talk about his illness with his estranged children, who he knows don’t truly understand or appreciate him. Meanwhile, he warms up to Thao. Walt implores Thao to be more confident in his life and even helps him get a construction job. Shortly after starting work, Thao is mugged by the gang members while walking home. They beat him up and steal the tools Walt lent him. Thao tells Walt, who becomes enraged and goes to the gangbangers’ house. Walt beats up one of the gang members and threatens him with death if he bothers Thao again. This leads to more retaliation from the gang, who shoot up the Vang Lor house and kidnap and rape Sue.
Now Walt (and Thao as well) are truly out for blood. Thao insists that they go kill all the gang members immediately. Walt tells him to calm down, go home and return later in the afternoon so he can make a plan. Meanwhile, Walt engages in a series of “last rite” type rituals. He gets a shave and a haircut and buys a new suit, clearly preparing to go down in a blaze of glory. Walt discusses the situation with the young priest, who opposes violence and senses that Walt is about to seek bloody revenge on the Hmong gang. The two men agree that the Vang Lors and the neighborhood in general will never be safe as long as the gangs are around, and the priest sends police to wait at the gang house. The police end up leaving, and Thao shows up at Walt’s house prepared for battle. Walt leads Thao into the basement to show him a gun and give him the Purple Heart he earned in the Korean War. Then he locks Thao in the basement and prepares to leave.
The Master of Two Worlds
Furious, Thao bangs on the door and begs to be released so he can avenge the atrocities committed against his family. Walt tells him that killing a person is a truly terrible feeling, and he wants Thao to be spared from that guilt. He leaves Thao in the basement and heads to the gang house. The gang members come out on the front porch and prepare for a standoff while the entire neighborhood looks on. They pull weapons as Walt puts a cigarette in his mouth and reaches into his coat. Assuming he is reaching for a gun, the gang shoots and kills him. As he falls to the ground, the audience sees that Walt is completely unarmed and was reaching for a lighter. The police arrive and since so many people witnessed the shooting, they are able to finally arrest the Hmong gang members, essentially freeing the neighborhood. Walt leaves nothing to his family in his will, but entrusts his Gran Torino to Thao. We see Thao and Sue attending Walt’s funeral dressed in traditional Hmong clothing. The final scene features Thao driving the Gran Torino with Walt’s dog Daisy in the front seat.
Submitted by: Emily Lawrence