The first and most obvious is the Gran Torino, the car itself, representing the theme of life; the second is the refrigerator that Walt is moving out of his basement, less obvious but representative of a real turning point in the relationship between Walt and Thao, enhancing the theme of relationships; the third symbol, tying in with the theme of death, is the way Walt falls to the ground following the final confrontation with the gang. Considering it is the title of the film, one would expect the Gran Torino to play an active role in the movie.
This is not the case, but the car still plays a very powerful role. The vehicle is dually symbolic, being representative of Walt in one manner and of Thao in a very different one. The Gran Torino represents Walt in nearly every way, shape, and form. It is his connection to the past and to better times in his eyes. It is a symbol of a time when life made more sense to Walt. It represents the hard-working, patriotic era in which he was raised and the way he lived his entire life, which was holding true to those same attributes.
And in the end, it is a symbol of Walt’s legacy. While the vehicle itself is part of his legacy, as it is passed on to another generation, it also passes on Walt’s beliefs and hardworking spirit. The Gran Torino evolves in its symbolism where Thao is concerned. It starts out representing the dangerous gang lifestyle that he is about to enter into when he is asked to and attempts to steal the car. As the story proceeds and Walt and Thao begin to form a relationship, it becomes a symbol of that relationship.
Walt telling Thao that he can use the car to take a girl out on a date shows Thao that he has truly earned Walt’s respect and trust. Finally, at the end of the movie when Walt wills the vehicle to Thao, the Gran Torino comes to represent Walt himself. Thao will likely never be able to drive that car without thinking of Walt and everything the man did for him. The scene involving the refrigerator may be short, but it carries a lot of power in explaining the evolution of the relationship between Walt and Thao. Their initial association was forced and not welcomed by either side.
As Walt watched Thao complete all of the neighborhood chores that he assigned, his attitude toward the boy slowly started to soften. Walt offers to sell the fridge to Thao for $25 as opposed to the $60 he was planning to advertise. This is the point where it becomes evident that Walt actually views Thao as a friend. This scene also shows that Walt’s “man training” is working. The personal transition that Thao is making is evident when he takes a stand and argues with Walt, insisting to lift the heavier top side when he helps Walt move the refrigerator out of the basement.
It’s amazing how much a kitchen appliance can contribute to the story. The final symbol lasts no more than a few seconds but carries an immense meaning with it. In the final conflict with the gang, the viewers expect to see a heroic gun battle with Walt eliminating the entire gang. Instead what they observe is Walt managing to draw the fire of all of the gang members with no intent of ever fighting back. After being riddled with bullets, his body falls to the ground and lands with his arms straight out to the sides, much like the image of Jesus being crucified.
This view of Walt in a Christ-like position carries the heaviest meaning of the entire film. Walt went to the gang’s house knowing that he would not walk away. He was willing to die to ensure that the gang members would be arrested, therefore unable to interfere with the lives of Thao and Sue, or cause any more violence in the rest of the community. Walt sacrificed his own life so that others would have the opportunity to live on and do so peacefully. Life, relationships, and death.
These subjects probably lay the most common groundwork of the entire movie industry, but they are addressed in this film in a way that makes those ideas seem completely original. While one would not be hard-pressed to identify other pieces of symbolism in Gran Torino, the three addressed here are definitely some of the most important. There are many ways to tell a story. The car, the fridge, and the fall add so much depth to the film and offer an abundance of insight into the story and the characters that can’t be conveyed merely with dialogue.