Aspects of Aging
Aging at the Movies
The central character is Walt Kowalski, an elderly widower who lives with Daisy, his Labrador retriever in the house he owns in Highland Park, a working class suburb of Detroit, Michigan. The house itself is a modest, one and a half story, frame dwelling commonly referred to as a Polish walkout that was probably built around the mid to late 1920s to house immigrant workers in the infant auto industry or on the docks of the Detroit waterfront. Given the last name of Kowalski, I would guess him to be second generation Polish.
The movie opens at the funeral of Walt’s wife of many years where a priest is giving the eulogy. Obviously uncomfortable, Walt leaves as soon possible and retreats to his home.
Walt, a Marine veteran of the Korean War still has some of the spit and polish mannerisms of the Corps but he also has a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to like anyone very much, not even his own sons, one of whom is married to somewhat of an inane church lady type. They have an average teenage daughter he doesn’t appear to like either. He sees them all as selfish and self-indulgent and refuses to give in to their demands he sell his house and move to a retirement center. Walt and I are on the same page here. It’s his house, he can care for it, pay the expenses and most importantly, live in it without hassles, why would he ever even think of selling it? There is no logical reason.
Walt and Daisy spent a lot of their time out on the front porch, he rocking in an old wooden rocking chair while drinking bottles of beer from an ice cooler beside him and chain smoking and Daisy half asleep in front of him on the splintered decking of the porch. On the surface this scenario appears almost idyllic – old man, dog, beer and rocking chair on front porch. If he had a corncob pipe I’d think I was in the Old South waiting on the levee for the Robert E. Lee. But on closer look one can see he is a sentry at his post. He is watching the neighborhood for changes and invasions, ever prepared to challenge any attack on his concept of the status quo.
As the movie progresses, one sees the prejudices Walt developed against Asians while he was in Korea fighting the North Koreans and Chinese. This manifests when new neighbors, the Lor family, Hmong Mountain People from Southeast Asia move in next door. He immediately takes a dislike to them and, while talking to Daisy, refers to them as “gooks, slopes and slant eyes”, all derogatory terms for Asian people.
The Lor’s consist of three generations, Grandmother (who sits on the porch calling Walt a round eye under her breath), Mother, teenage daughter Sue and her younger brother Thao. Only the one grandparent is mentioned and the loss of the father in the Asian conflicts is briefly mentioned.
Sue and Thao speak perfect English, suggesting they have lived in the states for a long period of time, while the mother’s is somewhat broken and the grandmother hasn’t learned to – she grumbles a lot like Walt. Of the kids, Sue is the extrovert who interprets for her grandmother and, on occasion for the mother. She has a quick mind and isn’t afraid to say how she feels. Thao is more of an introvert – shy at first and slow to warm up.
Other characters consists of a cousin, Spider who is a leader of a Hmong teen gang and not a very nice person. He pressures Thao to join the gang against the advice and wishes of his family. In an effort to be accepted, Thao gives in. His initiation is to steal Walt’s mint shape, ’72 Gran Torino Sport, a treasure from his days of working at the Ford assembly plant. His attempt fails when Walt hears the car motor start. He grabs his second treasure, an M-1 Garand rifle he brought home from Korea and points it at the gang members he encounters in front of his house. Amid a whirlwind of threats, they leave while Thao hastily apologizes and runs home.
The next day, Thao returns in the company of Sue and their mother. This seems to catch Walt off guard as they honor him with total respect and apologize for Thao’s actions. The mother insists Thao work for Walt to atone for his actions.
It was at this point in the movie that I noticed how Walt had erected Fort Walkowski, his psychological defense system against emotional invasion. By agreeing to allow Thao to atone for his actions the fort walls had been breached and Walt was feeling apprehensive but reason overcame and it was the beginning of change in his life. They were slow to warm to each other and parameters were tested but a bond developed almost from the start due to the efforts of Sue who was great at calling both of their bluffs. She was the designer of the bridge between them because she saw loneliness and need in both.
One day, while driving his old pickup truck, Walt see Sue being accosted by three black thugs. He pulls to the curb and as he does, yells at them to stop. One of the thugs pulls a knife and Walt responds by pulling his Colt 1911 revolver (a classic). The disagreement ends peacefully and Sue gets a ride home with Walt. Almost subliminally, I think what we see in this scene is a father-daughter bonding, each filling a void in the other’s life as well as Walt reinforcing his self-esteem.
The next day, Sue’s family is having a traditional Hmong barbecue to celebrate the birth of a child in the extended family and, coincidentally it is Walt’s birthday too. She goes to Walt’s and psychologically drags his butt over to join the party where he is amazed to learn that the Hmong people fought on the side of the Americans during the Korean War. Cautiously at first, he begins to relax and enjoy a feast of Hmong cuisine. He even takes time out to give Thao a lesson in dating when he sees him stare at a pretty girl surrounded by other boys. His reverie is cut short when he started coughing and quickly exits to a bathroom where he sees blood in the sputum he is brings up.
The next day, Walt sees a doctor who tells him his health is failing (bloody sputum is a symptom of lung cancer). He takes the news rather stoically but decides to call his son, Mitch to talk about it. His call was brief – Mitch was too busy to share. Well, Mitch does have a life of his own, right? True but I think Walt, like many older men who try to talk to their children about critical matters, should have been more forceful in getting his son to at least listen.
During this time, the Hmong gang is still trying to recruit Thao. One day, while he was walking home from work, they beat him, burn his face with a cigarette and rob him, leaving him lying in an alley. When Walt learned of this, he, in a pique of anger got revenge by beating up the second in command of the gang. This was followed days later by the gang doing a night time drive-by shooting into the Lor house, wounding Thao in the neck. The also kidnap Sue who was walking home from a relative’s house, beat her up and dump her in front of the house. When the police are called, the family refuses to identify the perpetrators but Walt knows who they are. He storms home, does a knuckle-buster job on his kitchen cabinets and determines he will get revenge his way.
While Thao is healing, the priest visits Walt and tries to talk some sense into him. Having called him Mr. Walkowski on Walt’s insistence, there is an easing and he calls him Walt but his ministrations are not helpful. Walt is dying, he knows he’s dying but he doesn’t tell the priest because someone harmed his family and that was more important.
Thao too, is determined to get revenge and he plots with Walt who plays along until the actual time he wants to act, then locks Thao in the basement so he won’t be harmed. He says goodbye in such a way that Thao knows he won’t return, then leaves.
It’s dark when Walt reaches the house where the Hmong gang is based. He stands out front in the dim light of a driveway lamp and has a cigarette as he calls them out. Cautiously at first, they exit the house one by one, each armed with a gun or rifle. As he finishes his cigarette, he does a thumb and index finger imitation of shooting a gun at them then slowly reaches into his coat at his waist band. They open fire en-masse and he is cut down in a hail of bullets as neighbors and other witnesses look on. Unarmed, he chose euthanasia by gang violence to end his suffering and that of his Asian family. His real legacy is Thao, who now owns the Gran Torino.
I love this movie and though I may have gotten one of two scenes out of sequence I believe I was true to my memory of it. I think it touches on many aspects of getting older and losing a loved one but also shows us there are others who need us too.
It was interesting to see the changes in Walt as opposed to those of the Lor grandmother who just wanted to sit on her porch in her rocker and cuss at him in the Hmong language. He also seemed to gravitate to the extended family of the Lors, perhaps fulfilling a desire of his own, after all, once his wife died he apparently didn’t have much of a family support system.
Another factor this movie teaches is that we can learn regardless of our ages (well maybe not grandma Lor, but who knows?). Through caring and sharing we can grow as a united people regardless of historical divisions of race, creed, heritage, cultural, etc. I think Walt learned that and found it to be a better option than sitting on his porch drinking beer with Daisy or vegetating in a nursing home.
I think the beautifully portrays growing old and facing the ultimate stage of our lives from a man’s point of view. Walt has worked hard all his life, served his country with honor and earned his place in life. Maybe he wasn’t a perfect father, or person for that matter but he was real. Maybe he didn’t cry when his wife crossed but I know there were tears in his heart. He was alone and it confused and, perhaps even scared him.
Although his relationship with his biological children factor in the story, its import only brings to question why were they like they were? As a father, I can relate to that – my kids basically went their own ways and we have very little contact. I admit I wronged them and wish I could atone but like Walt, that seems an impossibility now.
I feel Sue may have replaced Walt’s wife to a certain degree. Although we never see his wife in the film just the way Walt listens to Sue and responds to her makes me think Walt listened to his wife too.
In Thao, I believe Walt saw a chance to atone for his perceived errors in raising his own sons. Perhaps he was gone to the war during their critical years and he missed that, the movie never really says. Whatever the case, Thao became a cure for some of Walt’s deeper psychological issues and his loneliness.
I think that if the Lor family had not come into his life, when Walt found out he had lung cancer, he probably would have committed suicide on the front porch with Daisy on the stoop, a beer in his hand and the M-1 Garand muzzle in his mouth. He chose euthanasia by gang violence for two purposes, to stop the gang by staging his own murder (he was unarmed) in front of witnesses and thereby die in battle like a true Marine Warrior with the only truly effective weapon he had, his life