“Gran Torino” is the best movie I have seen this year, maybe the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s about death and redemption, the loss of an American way of life and the purchase for immigrants of a new way of life. It’s theological and timely given our age of rage against people of color. And all this with Clint Eastwood – the central actor – as a bigoted, retired Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski.
I know, I know, I’m not supposed to view, let alone recommend an R-rated movie that drops the F-bomb with frequency beyond count. As offensive as the F-bomb is, it is only one of many offensive words that stream through the movie crammed with racial slurs, crude references to masculinity and coarse language about women.
Of course, most Baptists and other Christians will accept the violence without flinching. Many will applaud Kowalski’s gun play to reign in thuggish violence and will yearn for the expected sweet revenge in the name of justice against punks.
When Kowalski says through clenched teeth, “Get off my lawn,” he sounds a lot like policeman “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who says, “Make my day,” in Eastwood’s 1983 movie “Sudden Impact.”
In a way, “Get off my lawn” could serve as a cultural slogan for our societal anger – anger that says, “Get out of my country.” Read: “I want my country back.” Read: “You’re not a native-born American,” “Those people are a problem” and “Immigrants don’t deserve health care.”
Released in January 2009, “Gran Torino” opens with death – the death of a beloved wife, the death of Christian faith, the death of the auto industry in Detroit and the death of a neighborhood.
At the funeral for Kowalski’s wife in a Catholic Church, we hear Kowalski growl about his disrespectful grandchildren, learn about his sons’ distance from their father and see his contempt for a young priest, later called “priest-boy.”
Kowalski’s only loves are his dog Daisy, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, a vintage 1972 Gran Torino and a neat front lawn. He is surrounded by “swamp rats,” Hmong gangbangers, Hispanic hoods, African-American bullies and his Euro-American narcissistic relatives who live in the far-off suburbs. He’s plagued by that redheaded, do-gooder priest fresh from seminary.
Living next door in a rundown house is a multi-generational Hmong family, including Thao, a young teenage boy, whom Kowalski calls “Toad,” and Sue, Thao’s older sister.
At one point in the movie, sitting in the dark, Kowalski says to Father Janovich, “Thao and Sue are never going to find peace in this world as long as that gang’s around. Until they go away, you know, forever.”
Priest-boy replies, “What are you saying?”
“You know what I’m saying,” answers Kowalski. “What would you do?”
Janovich soon says, “If I was Thao, I guess I would want vengeance. I would want to stand shoulder to shoulder with you and kill those guys.”
“So, what are you going to do, Mr. Kowalski?” asks the young priest.
“Call me Walt,” replies Kowalski.
Father Janovich asks again, “What are you going to do, Walt?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll think of something,” says Kowalski. “Whatever it is, they won’t have a chance.”
If you get a chance, brace yourself for the language and violence, then watch the movie. You will have a chance to think morally about how we see others and what we are willing to do for them.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Reviewer’s note: The MPAA rated the movie “R” for language and violence. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting gave the movie an “L” classification, which is “an extremely restrictive classification” that excludes “most adult viewers.”