The Incarnational Clint Eastwood
From the trailers Gran Torino (2008) appears to be a somewhat stereotypical American story of a racist, elderly misanthrope who is forced to deal with his prejudices and eventually come to appreciate those he used to scorn. However, with Eastwood as director and lead actor, Gran Torino delivers much more: a messy but deeply human story about a man in the process of being redeemed.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and retired Ford assembly line worker recently widowed. Living in a Michigan suburb that has experienced a large influx of Hmong immigrants and having two sons who act as though their father is a burden they have to bear, Walt does his best to live in isolation. It is through the persistent efforts of the young “Father Janovich” (Christopher Carley) and especially Walt’s stubbornly invasive Hmong neighbors that the old man begins over the course of the film to transform from a jaded cynic to a compassionate friend.
The spiritual overtones in the film are established from the outset. Indeed, the first frame is the façade of a church, with cross front and center. As Father Janovich eulogizes Walt’s deceased wife, he discusses the significance of life and death. However, his sermon is a platitude: Death is bittersweet because eternity offsets the pain we feel in this life. Having promised Walt’s deceased wife that he would look out for her husband, Father Janovich drops in on him from time to time, much to the old veteran’s dismay. Walt has no use for pat answers, especially pat answers delivered by an inexperienced priest fresh from seminary, and he spares few words to explain that to the Father.
However, as Walt becomes entangled in the lives of his next door neighbors, he is forced out of his narrow little world. Having known much death and having pondered it for most of his life, Walt slowly learns what life is like, and in the process challenges Thao, the Hmong teenager next door, to live his life to the fullest. As the film reaches its climax, the old Walt has mostly disappeared, and in his place stands a man releasing the baggage of his past and achieving peace. Through the film viewers get a sideways glance at incarnational theology through this one man’s act of obedience (cf. Romans 5).
The 1972 Ford Gran Torino
Of course, the film is so named because Walt’s prized possession is his vintage vehicle, which he helped assemble in the factory. At first providing the sticking point between Walt and Thao, the car eventually becomes the device by which Walt’s newfound magnanimity is showered upon Thao.
It is due to the car that Walt and Thao come to know each other. Through the influence of his gang-member cousin, Thao tries to steal Walt’s car but is caught in the act. When Walt performs an unintentionally heroic act which saves Thao, Thao is forced by his family to work off the debt he owes to Walt. Through this time together, Thao learns to work, to take pride in his accomplishments, to stand up for himself and his family, and Walt learns what family, life and love really mean. And so, when Walt’s new found Hmong “family” is threatened, the war veteran does what he must to protect them.
The film explores many timely themes. The heartless way in which Walt’s sons deal with him lays bare the calloused sentiments of children of all ages who treat their parents as burdens and obstacles to be dealt with rather than as people to be respected and loved. Father Janovich’s seminary religion is called into question for its useless theologizing while at the same time the underlying truths of his message are vindicated through his maturing outlook and Walt’s own actions. Racism is clearly a prominent theme in the film as well; virtually no ethnic group escapes Walt’s neverending ridicule (and viewers should take note of this fact before seeing the film). Still, while the seemingly strange rituals of the Hmong family are derided by Walt, they are nevertheless quietly affirmed for their underlying virtues by the filmmaker. Conceptions of manhood are front and center too: While Walt seems to present manhood to Thao as consisting of rude comments and a cynical attitude, in reality he demonstrates that being a man entails at the very least loyalty towards those you love and a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them. Finally, the myth of necessary/redemptive violence is undone in the film, and the viewer is left with an unforgettable image of redemption in its place.
It comes as no surprise that this film delivers all the viewer might expect while going beyond it in many ways. The story of the film is wonderfully crafted, and Eastwood’s direction presents the themes of the film poignantly. At times the younger members of the cast seem somewhat inexperienced, but at no point does this detract from the overall force of the film. Eastwood’s signature style (a la the Dirty Harry classics) receives a fresh interpretation in Gran Torino. For an actor/director who has been involved in many films which are already considered classics, Gran Torino is certainly one to add to the canon of Eastwood greats. While viewers can sympathize with Eastwood’s character even if they are repulsed by his racism, they can hardly miss Gran Torino’s cross-shaped message with Eastwood fulfilling the roles of redeemed and redeemer. The film may help the religious and irreligious alike see through to the heart of the Christian story. For the person who lives in a confused maelstrom of post-everythings, this film shines a ray of hope through the fog to deliver a visceral, clear-eyed story of the true shape of human salvation.
Joel Nolette '11, Steve Hunt (faculty, biblical studies) and Mark Sargent, Provost, collaborated on this review.