Walt Kowalski is the dictionary definition of the angry old man. His wife has just died, his sons are estranged, his neighborhood is deteriorating, the country he fought for in Korea has vanished, except for the horrible memories of the war itself.
Who could guess what God could do with such a man?
From the filmâ€™s opening at his wifeâ€™s funeral to its close at Waltâ€™s own funeral, despite his best efforts, Walt develops a caring relationship with the neighbors who represent all he detests about the modern world â€“ two Hmung siblings, Sue and her brother Thao Lor.
On his birthday, a bored Walt decides to read his horoscope:
â€œYour birthday today; this year you have to make a choice between two life paths. Second chances come your way. Extraordinary events culminate in what might seem to be an anti-climax.â€
Little does he know what God has in store for Him.
Later on his birthday, Sue coaxes Walt to her house (where a Hmung shamanic child initiation is happening) with the prospect of beer. While there, Sue introduces Walt to Kor Khue, the Lor family shaman.
â€œWALT: Witch doctor?
SUE: Kor Khue is interested in you, he heard what you did. He says he would like to read you.â€
KOR KHUE does and SUE translates:
â€œKor Khue says that you think youâ€™ve been disrespected. You do not live your life. Your food has no flavor. You are scared of your past. You stopped living years and years ago. Kor Khue says youâ€™re not at peace.
WALT looks like heâ€™s been hit by a truck. The Shaman watches Walt closely, he knows he hit the nail on the head. Walt looks pale. Heâ€™s been spooked good.â€
Knowing Walt has no truck with his wifeâ€™s Christianity, God seems to be using alternative means to reveal his knowledge of Waltâ€™s heart to Walt.
Earlier Walt had confessed:
â€œI lived with death for three years in Korea. We shot people, we stabbed them with bayonets, and we hacked seventeen-year-old kids to death with shovels, for Christâ€™s sake. I did things that wonâ€™t leave me till the day I die, horrible things, things I have to live with….â€
Living with his past doesnâ€™t let Walt live with his present.
Until God sent the Hmungs into his resistant heart.
When an Asian gang shoots up the Lor house in a drive by, Walt rushes over. All are okay, but Sue is missing. While waiting for news of Sue Walt is given a revelation about himself:
â€œIn Korea I learned not to care. The best friends of my life are still missing in Korea. You harden yourself. Don’t let anything get to you.â€
Just then a battered and raped Sue enters.
The script states: “Walt is destroyed. He steps outside into the darkâ€¦It’s the first time Walt has cried in fifty years. He wails, crying for Tao, Sue, his wife, kids and himself.”
With a reborn heart, Walt prepares to act.
All know someone will die.
But only Walt knows who.
Walt goes home to do what he has always wanted to do: smoke in the house.
Walt goes home to make order: he â€œmeticulously mows his lawn.â€
Walt prepares himself: he gets a haircut and a straight shave, something he has never ordered, and buys his first â€œfitted suit.â€
Walt goes to church to finally fulfill his wifeâ€™s dying wish: heÂ confesses to Father Janovich who blesses him: “Go in peace”.
Walt replies: “I am at peace.”
Walt goes home to pin his Silver Star on a revenge seeking Thao.
Walt explains to Thao why he canâ€™t go with him:
â€œI lived with death for three years in Korea. We shot people, we stabbed them with bayonets, and we hacked seventeen-year-old kids to death with shovels, for Christâ€™s sake. I did things that wonâ€™t leave me till the day I die, horrible things, things I have to live with….You want to know how it feels to kill a man? It feels goddamned lousy. And it feels even worse when you get a medal for bravery right after you mowed down some scared kid when he tries to give up. A dumb, scared, little gook, just about your age. I shot him with the same rifle you just held upstairs. Iâ€™ve thought about that kid for fifty years. And I promise you, boy, you want no part of it. Me, Iâ€™ve got blood on my hands. Iâ€™m soiled…
â€œYouâ€™ve come a long way. Iâ€™m proud to call you a friend. You have your whole life ahead of you, whereas this is what I do. I finish things. Youâ€™d just get in the way. Sorry.â€
Walt makes arrangements for his dog, Daisy.
Walt goes to his neighborhood bar and â€œorders something different than his shot and a beer â€“â€œ Johnny Walker BLUE LABEL.â€ Then he buys all the guys there the same.
Walt heads to the Asian gangâ€™s house and calls them out as the neighbors gather as witnesses.
Walt takes out a cigarette and asks the assembled, â€œAnybody got a light? NO? I got one. Hail Mary full of graceâ€¦
Walt is felled by a hail of gunfire.
The script notes: “Walt never intended to kill anyone. Self-sacrifice.”
Walt KowalskiÂ gives his life so that the Hmung family might live free from fear.
Walt leaves his prize possession, his mint 1972 Gran Torino, not to his sons or grandchildren, but to his â€œadopted sonâ€ Thao.
As Thao drives off in Waltâ€™s Gran Torino, the classic car assumes the status of a saintâ€™s relic, just as the Shroud of Turin (the geographical namesake of Waltâ€™s car) bears witness to the citizens of the Kingdom of God to the great atoning sacrifice of the King who adopted all who believe in him.