Rivkah Writes…

August 3, 2009

Expiation through Self-Sacrifice in “Gran Torino”

Many people would agree that the rational treatment for post-traumatic experiences is therapy of some kind. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be everyone’s treatment of choice. Why? Because weakness, craziness, and/or femininity are stigmas that still cling to any kind of psychological help. As a result, fear of discovery may inhibit people in certain insular groups, such as holocaust survivors, and in certain professions, such as the army and the fire and police departments, from seeking this kind of assistance. Some turn to drugs and alcohol as an alternative means of numbing the memories; but others, stronger willed, draw a veil over past traumas, refusing to either talk about or refer to them. While this coping strategy allows many to function, it takes its own toll, forcing the individual to build a protective fortress around his or her emotions – a fortress that keeps family and friends out, and blocks meaningful human interaction. This theme has been visited frequently in literature and film, most recently and brilliantly in Clint Eastwood’s production, “Gran Torino.”

In the movie, Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowlaski, a retired auto worker and misanthropic loner so haunted by his painful experiences in the Korean War that he is unable to connect with other human beings, never mind his own family. Snarling, cantankerous, and unabashedly racist, Walt makes short shrift of the 27-year old priest who rashly promised his dying wife that he would persuade Walt to go to confession, dispatches his son and daughter-in-law with even less ceremony when they suggest Walt move to a retirement community, and churlishly rebuffs his new Hmong neighbors. With his wife gone, Walt’s only connections are to his 1972 Gran Torino, well maintained, but rarely on show – like Walt’s good heart – his dog Daisy, on whom he lavishes the affection he cannot show his family, and his barber with whom he exchanges heavily barbed racist repartee on a monthly basis.

Then circumstances throw Walt together with Thao and Sue, his young neighbors. Local gang members pressure a reluctant Thao into stealing Walt’s Grand Tornio as an initiation rite, but Thao fails when the old man catches him in the act. Gang members show up to “give him another shot” despite Thao’s clear desire to be left alone and his older sister’s furious attempts to protect him. When the altercation spills on to Walt’s lawn, he orders them off his property at rifle-point – and ironically becomes a hero to the descendents of a people he was once ordered to kill. Irony piles atop irony as we examine the full ramifications of Walt’s action. When he draws his rifle at the intruders, he doesn’t bother to distinguish victims from attackers. All he sees, in purely blinkered terms, is a bunch of trespassing gooks. Successive events, however, teach Walt to view his neighbors through a prism of grudging tolerance. After he saves Sue from hectoring young black men, Walt is exposed to this fearless young woman’s teasing attempts to draw him into her world. Having no trouble standing up to menacing gang members, Sue remains unfazed by the racist slurs Walt throws her way; she recognizes these as the defenses Walt has erected to keep the world at bay. In fact, she parries his verbal assaults with cheerful explanations of the people and customs Walt learned to demonize in surviving Korea’s daily horrors. Ultimately, Walt starts to run out of steam in the face of Sue’s persistence, along with that of his Hmong neighbors who continue to leave food on his steps as tokens of gratitude to their unwitting “hero.” He also reluctantly agrees to let Thao work off his Gran Torino-theft offense, and under his rough tutelage, watches the withdrawn young man gradually come into his own. In time, Walt becomes more connected to Thao and Sue than to his own family; more receptive to the community’s holy man than to his own priest; and more aware with every day that goes by, that this family will find no peace as long as gang violence against them continues unchecked.

When his neighbors’ home is subjected to a drive-by shooting and Sue is violently raped, events crystallize for Walt into an unspoken epiphany. Without articulating his intent to anyone, without even clearly articulating it to himself, Walt begins to prepare for battle: he has his hair cut and tips the astonished barber $10; he has himself fitted for a custom-tailored suit; he leaves Daisy with Thao’s grandmother, a woman with whom he shares a mutual bond of elderly mistrust – and he goes to church to make his confession, much to Father Janovich’s consternation – “what in God’s name have you done!” Never once amid these seemingly mundane events, heavily loaded with portent, does Walt’s grim humor flag, his courage wane, or his façade crack. He remains formidably cranky to the end. Significantly, the one sin Walt does not confess to is killing men under orders during the Korean War; he is about to atone for this in actions rather than in words.

When Walt confronts the gang members at their home, he draws out the tension until he is certain there are plenty of witnesses to what will ensue, secure in the knowledge that for him, this is the point of no return. Walt is not even carrying a gun when the gang open fire; significantly, he falls to the ground arms outstretched. Like Jesus, Walt dies to save others; unlike Jesus, though, his sacrifice expiates his own burden, redeeming his soul by bringing hope to the descendents of men he unwillingly shot in Korea. Precise and responsible to the end, Walt is ready for his burial – hair trimmed, custom-made suit ready to be picked up from the tailors. All that remains is for Father Janovich, the young priest’s forebodings confirmed, to deliver the sermon. And as the final pièce de résistance, Walt bequeaths his Gran Tornio to his emotional heir, Thao; freed of its owner’s burden, the material symbol of Walt’s goodness can finally see the light of day.

So what, actually, is Walt’s reasoning in his moment of epiphany? He comes to the realization, in common with his Dickensian analogue, another sardonic, nobly flawed character, Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities,” that nothing in his life is more important than saving those he loves, that nothing in his life stands in the way of his departure, and that ultimately, expiation through self-sacrifice is “….a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done.”* We can only hope that, along with Sydney Carton, having fulfilled his destiny, Walt finds his way to “…a far, far better place…than I have ever known.”*


*A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. At the moment of sacrificing his life for his rival, for the sake of the woman they both love, Sydney Carton says:

“It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done. It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Fallen AngelMan in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray, Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed, and The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your perspective on the Gran Torino just like the Man in the Mirror, it made me think about my experiences from my childhood. Growing up in NY my father had a Gran Torino, a car that I thought was the coolest car in the neighborhood. It was dark green with a black vinyl top, it was “bad” that what we said back then. Similar to clint my dad was a vet. But he didn’t show his prejudice towards the germans like I would have expected but against the black and spanish in The Bronx where we grew up. I always wondered why such anger came out of my dad who was for the most part a very loving man, who after my sister died brought up my other sister and I alone after my mother left us at an early age.
    Like the priest I always argued against his prejudice towards minorities. But he was set in his ways and needed someone to blame for the neighborhood turning into a war zone. So after our Gran Torino was stolen I never thought my father would ever forgive “them”. Even though he found out later that the car was stolen by a bunch of white guys in Ozone Park.
    So about 20 years later my father was spending much of his time at the VA hospital due to his diabetes. He was surrounded by nurses and orderlies that were minorities. The day before he died a very wonderful African American nurse that became friends with my dad at the hospital, came into his room without noticing me and held his hand and brushed his hair with her hand, knowing that the end was close and smiled at him with a tear in her eyes.
    Although my Dad never said it, he did come to appreciate people for who they are and not by their color or language they spoke. In his own way with nobody really knowing, his sacrifice was very simple… friendship. The day he died I went to the corner store on 23rd street and brought flowers and chocolate for the staff on 13 North. It was the only way I thought I could say thank you for being his friend too.

    Rivkah, keep up the wonderful writing I know it’s inspiring people to think in ways you will never know.


    Comment by Wayne Furlan — August 4, 2009 @ 1:39 am | Reply

    • Wayne – thank you so much for your moving response. And thank you for inspiring me to continue writing!

      Comment by rivkahwrites — August 4, 2009 @ 9:22 am | Reply

  2. Interesting review. I’m not sure it is a movie I would want to see but Clint Eastwood has been known of late to produce well developed stories and well rounded movies.

    Comment by clbro — August 4, 2009 @ 1:45 am | Reply

    • Thanks Christie – yes, the movie is not for everyone. But Clint Eastwood’s productions are pretty much gems – all of them. “Mystic River” is a tour de force, “Million Dollar Baby” ripped me apart. To watch the movies the viewer has to be willing to confront hard realities like violence, religious corruption, parental self-interest, and racism.

      Comment by rivkahwrites — August 4, 2009 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  3. This article generated much discussion on some LinkedIn groups where I introduced it with the question, “How do people deal with traumatic memories?” Rather than reproduce every comment here, I’m going to include the URL. I hope you find the discussions as inspirational and interesting as I did.

    "Write It Down" - A Website for Writers

    Writing Mafia

    Jewish Professionals

    Comment by rivkahwrites — August 19, 2009 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

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