Gran Torino -- A Meditation

I must start by saying that if you've not seen the movie and don't want to know the ending or even the plot, then you might not want to read further. Otherwise, I invite you to share in this meditation on Clint Eastwood's movie of a year ago, and now on DVD.

Gran Torino is a redemption story. Indeed, though the language may be rough and the violence very much present, it is a spiritually moving movie. Clint Eastwood stars and directs this movie filmed on location here in Metro-Detroit. I wasn't sure what to make of it prior to watching it -- I like Eastwood movies and appreciate his characters who are often silent and misunderstood.

In this movie, which starts in a funeral and ends with a funeral as the penultimate statement, we watch as two redemption stories emerge, woven carefully together. As the movie begins, Walt Kowalski is at the funeral of his wife. The young priest offers a rather bland message of the bitter sweetness of death. It is bitter due to the loss, but sweet because of salvation. It is a message that means little to the old, brazen, and bigoted Kowalski. It is a message that is fit for superstitious women, but it offers him no hope.

The priest is a central character, for he sees it his calling to pester Kowalski into making a confession (something he promised the dying wife). The old man, however, has little time for a young priest who knows nothing, in his mind, about life and death. That is one theme that runs through the movie -- life and death.

There is another story, a powerful and moving story about unlikely friendships that bring redemption. You see, Walt Kowalski is the last "American" living in an old Detroit neighborhood that is now almost entirely Hmong. Having fought in Korea, earning a Silver Star for killing a young Korean soldier, he is jaded about life and has nothing but disdain for his neighbors. But as the movie progresses, he becomes linked to the Hmong family living next door.

Oh, the Grand Torino -- it's a mint condition car that Kowalski had helped build had owned since it came off the Ford line at which he had worked for 50 years. Thao, the neighbor boy who is studious but shy, trying to stay out of the gangs that seemed to consume all the young men in the neighborhood. His sister Sue makes the comment that the girls go to college and the boys to jail. There is no future, no hope. The gang tries to recruit him and makes him try and steal the Grand Torino as initiation. That fails, and eventually Tow must work off the shame by working for Kowalski -- who has no need for any help. But in time the two grow close, as Kowalski becomes the mentor and model for a young man without any hope.

In the course of this story, Walt Kowalski is redeemed by this relationship. He is a bigot and yet that hard shell is broken as he becomes connected to this very different family. Indeed, he is estranged from his own family who seem to want only material things and don't value what he values. They want that Grand Torino for themselves.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear, especially after Thao is assaulted, the home is shot up, and the sister brutally raped by the gang, that there is no hope for Tow unless the community is rid of the gang members. Here is the second deeply moving redemption story. Kowalski, who had threatened the gang to leave the family alone prior to this, a warning that led to the assaults on Sue and the home, decides to bring this to an end.

Kowalski goes and finally makes his confession and gets fitted for a new suit. The priest believes that Kowalski is going to take things into his own hands and kill the perpetrators, but he is wrong about the now redeemed Kowalski. No, when the time comes, Kowalski goes to the house, does his finger shoots, and when he seems to reach for a gun -- but instead is reaching for his cigarette lighter, the gang opens fire and he dies in a hail of bullets.

Knowing that he was dying, he had gone to this encounter unarmed, knowing that he would die, but that perhaps this would lead to the arrest and conviction on these gang members making it possible for Thao to live free of their tyranny. He becomes in this the redeemer, the one who lays down his life for his friends.

At the funeral for Walt, Father Janovich, the young priest offers his eulogy, one very different from the first.

Father Janovich: [eulogizing Walt] Walt Kowalski once said to me that I knew nothing about life or death, because I was an over-educated, 27-year-old virgin who held the hand of superstitious old women and promised them eternity.
[the congregation chuckles politely and somberly]
Father Janovich: Walt definitely had no problem calling it like he saw it. But he was right. I knew really nothing about life or death, until I got to know Walt... and boy, did I learn.

And he did learn the meaning of life and death, a life given so that another might live. Does this not have spiritual meaning? Is there not second chances, and opportunities to become someone different, perhaps the person buried deep inside because of life's travails?

Oh, and Thao ends up with the Grand Torino and Daisy the Dog, the two things in the world most prized by the grizzled old Walt Kowalski.

If you read this far and haven't seen the movie, please see it, even if I've spoiled the surprise. It will move you.


pastormack said…
Great post. I completely agree with your analysis of this fantatic movie, which was sorely overlooked because it did not conform to certain norms of what constitutes an "Oscar-worthy" film.

It's worth noting also, that while this is a redemption story, Walt became a savior figure in his self-sacrifice but was not fundamentally altered. In other words, by the end of the film he was still a grouchy, drinking, smoking, at least comically racist old man. His was redeemed where he was; he was not turned into what Hollywood or the other elites deem an "acceptable" figure. Of course, I think this is a large reason why it was so well-recieved by all but the big awards shows.

Just thought this was worth mentioning. I appreciated that this film did not try to apologize for the character, but still found value in him.
jim Gordon said…
At a recent UK meeting of Theological College staff we watched Gran Torino together and then shared in an hour's discussion. Much of our discussion reflected your comments, Bob. Our problem was how to use such a powerful and 'good' movie as a teaching aid in church! The language would be a serious challenge to its being heard and understood. Yet in church, as much as anywhere, it has important things to say around its treatment of racism, exclusion, welcome of the other, the redemptive power of friendship that grows out of and strengthenes human love......
Thanks for the post.
Robert Cornwall said…
Mack, thanks for adding in that part about how, at least outwardly, Walt remains unchanged. He was a straight shooter, so to speak.

And Jim, you're right there is a certain resistance in church circles to watch a movie such as this, but it has so much power that we may need to find a way to use it.
Anonymous said…
I LOVE LOVE LOVE this movie.. great pick. Great redemption story. Clinton dieing to redeem the boy was a fantastic Christ like image.

Anonymous said…
Ps.. actually Christianity Today listed this movie in its top 5 (it have been #2) on the list.. so its gotten some Christian press. The R rating of course is an issue for some. It is God's timing you mention this movie b/c my dad randomly asked me about it yesterday and how much he liked it.
Steve said…
Bob, Eastwood once again turned the "myth of redemptive violence" on its head. Redemption was received by self-sacrifice.

One flaw: the movie's spiritual impact was seriously diminished by the revelation that the Eastwood character was terminally ill. The question lingers, would he have taken this course of action had he been healthy (as was Jesus)?
Robert Cornwall said…

You do raise an interesting point. One cannot say -- but the willingness to give his life so another might live is intriguing.
Anonymous said…
I finally saw this movie, and plan to veiw it with my 80+ year old Catholic parents.

"One flaw: the movie's spiritual impact was seriously diminished by the revelation that the Eastwood character was terminally ill. The question lingers, would he have taken this course of action had he been healthy (as was Jesus)?"

There's a flaw in this criticism- The Bible makes it very clear Jesus knew well he was doomed and probably pondered his mortality every day. David Mc
Anonymous said…
That's funny, I stopped by my parent's at lunchtime and asked if they'd like to come over and watch Gran Torino. Turns out they saw it Saturday night- the night before we did. Dad said it was weird, but he liked it (Mom was napping). David Mc