Gran Torino Review

1177 words | 4 page(s)

In Gran Torino, Walt is extremely resistant to the cultural diversity that has begun to surround him in his neighborhood. His experience as a soldier in the Korean War left him with a lasting prejudice against Asian peoples in general, and he refers to his Hmong neighbors with a variety of racist epithets, such as “swamp rats,” “gooks,” “slopes,” and “fish heads.” Even as he learns more about them and softens his stance somewhat, he maintains the offensive language and general disdain for their culture. From the beginning, however, he does tolerate his neighbors, as long as they do not infringe on his property or general desire to be “left alone.” While this is not a film about a conservative American embracing a new culture, is does show a general move towards acceptance, which we see not only in Walt’s relation with his neighbors and the surrounding Hmong community, but also in his adaptation to a foreign doctor, tailor, and even in his concessions to Father Janovich.

There are qualities Walt sees in Sue, Thao, and their family that transcend cultural difference. While visiting them in their home, he tells himself “I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled rotten family.” This has little to do with their cultural practices; rather, he is drawn by their honesty, hard work, dedication to each other, and willingness to accept him. In Walt, they come to see, as Sue says, “a good man” – nothing more, nothing less – though this own family cannot seem to accept or relate to him in the same way. His sons see judgment in Walt’s every look and make little effort to reach past the tough facade he keeps up. They can barely stand to be around him, and it is telling that – although not intended as such – his Hmong neighbors do much more to help Walt deal with his wife’s death than does his own family: they invite him over, bring him food, and offer their son to help him around the house. His son and daughter-in-law give Walt a grabber and large-button telephone for his birthday – basically communicating their view of him as an elderly invalid. To the Hmong, in contrast, he becomes a hero, a mentor, and a teacher.

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Compared to others around him, Walt’s communication skills appear rudimentary at best. He tends towards grunts and growls, the monosyllabic and pithy insults or derogatory remarks. Walt is by no means stupid, however, and taking his speech, sounds, gestures, demeanor, and stance as a whole, there is in fact a great deal that he is able to communicate. He simply does so with great efficiency: a glare or scowl, a shake of the head, a hand in the shape of a gun all become powerful symbols when wielded by Walt. His family has come to read these signs in a certain way, and see only disappointment, regret, and judgment in them. They view Walt as incapable of giving a compliment, of saying anything positive. In a way, this is true, but it is closely tied to his identity – to his conception of what it is to be a man – and expecting him to change, rather than accepting it, is unrealistic.

The scene in which Walt teaches Thao how to “talk like a man” is indicative of the former’s view on masculinity and the purpose of talk. To relate to Walt’s type of men, one is expected to banter, trading insults and complaining about women, work, and cars. This kind of man avoids being overly earnest, expressing emotion, being self-deprecating, apologizing for anything, or discussing private affairs. What Walt is doing is teaching a form of “speech code” for the working-class male community he is introducing Thao to. As Philipsen (1975) found in his seminal study on “Teamsterville,” there are certain tacit rules of male self-representation in these communities. During his “lesson,” however, Thao manages to turn this manly talk on its head and bring his own sense of humor to bear when he makes the comment “boy does my ass hurt from all the guys at my construction job.”

Gran Torino also highlights the concept of linguistic convergence/divergence, an aspect of linguistic accommodation in which a person shifts their speech patterns in order to adapt themselves to a particular context (Giles & Smith, 1979). By adopting Walt’s speech code in his new workplace, Thao is able to secure a construction job and, presumably, interact more effectively with his colleagues. In a clear failure of accommodation, Sue’s companion only escalates a potentially violent situation when he speaks to the young African-American men with terms such as “bro” and others that he anticipates is their slang. At the climax of the film, the police officer at the scene of Walt’s murder is able to handle Thao by switching to a shared language, another example of linguistic convergence. By emphasizing a “shared identity,” the officer is able to demonstrate a more sympathetic orientation without relinquishing authority (Giles et al., p. 11).

Walt also has a keen sense of how to communicate with the hoodlums who harass Sue on the corner, in sharp contrast to her “date,” who attempt to relate to and appease them fail utterly. Walt understands that sometimes violence, or the threat of violence, is the only way to communicate with some people and in some situations. Philipsen (1975) writes that, in a cultural context such as this, one must judge “the appropriateness of speaking versus other actional strategies,” such as “silence, violence, or nonverbal threats” (p. 13). Walt also understands, as we see in the conclusion, that, at other times, violence is not the solution.

While Thao is shy and awkward and has difficulty communicating even with his own family, Sue more aggressively pursues a friendship with Walt. Sue has sound communication skills and appears as comfortable in American cultural contexts as in her own family’s traditional Hmong culture. While Walt initially resists her advances to friendship, he slowly begins to respect her persistence, candor, spirit, and wisdom. By the end of the film, Walt cares deeply for both Sue and Thao and is willing to sacrifice his own life to enable them to move forward without abuse by the local street gang. They help him to find some meaning and purpose in his life after his wife’s death, something that neither his own family nor the church is able to provide.

  • Eastwood, C., Schenk, N., Johannson, D., Lorenz, R., Gerber, B., Vang, B., Her, A., Warner Home Video (Firm). (2009). Gran Torino. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
  • Giles, H., & Smith, P. (1979). Accommodation theory: Optimal levels of convergence. In H. Giles & R. N. St. Clair (Eds.), Language and Social Psychology (pp. 45-65). Baltimore: Basil Blackwell.
  • Giles et al. (2005). Communication accommodation: Law enforcement and the public. Center on Police Practices and Community. Retrieved from
  • Philipsen, G. (1975, 12). Speaking “like a man” in Teamsterville: Culture patterns of role enactment in an urban neighborhood. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61(1), 13-22. doi: 10.1080/00335637509383264

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