I do not think “Gran Torino” is Clint Eastwood’s best film. It is not even the best of the ones I have seen, and I have not seen all of them.
His turn in “The Outlaw Josie Wales” is a favorite of mine, but “Unforgiven” is, I believe, his most profound work—a midrash on the doctrines of justice, sin (original and actual), redemption, even the communion of the saints. That said, I found “Gran Torino” both compelling and theologically interesting.
Eastwood’s character is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet and Ford Motor Company retiree who in many ways is still fighting those wars (he hates his Hmong neighbors; he loathes his son’s affiliation with Toyota). He is “not at peace,” as the tiny Hmong shaman rightly observes.
Walt’s regard for the foreign priest is as jaundiced, if more bemused, as his attitude toward church. If Walt ever had more than nominal regard for matters of faith, he has long since given up even that. His wife’s funeral, which opens the movie, finds him a stranger in a strange land, alone in the midst, as estranged from his own sons and their rude and presumptuous children as he is from any of the few church members who have gathered.
He is especially contemptuous of Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), growling at the young priest, “I think you’re an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.”
The test of wills between the young priest (who promised Walt’s wife he would check in on Walt and try to get Walt to go to confession) and the grizzled old man that Kowalski has become comprises one major sub-plot in the movie.
Another is the silent and in that way hilarious stand-off between Walt and the old Hmong woman who lives next door. Each disdainfully eyes the other porch-to-porch. If, by the end, the young father has learned from Walt something about death, for his part Walt turns to the priest for something like friendship and for absolution. That unforeseen eventuality is as surprising as Walt’s learning from his heretofore-hated neighbors that life does not consist in mowing the grass, fixing things, drinking beer and waxing the Gran Torino that he helped build while he was still on the assembly line.
Everyone wants Walt’s car: his unappreciative granddaughter, a Hmong gang, and his young neighbor, Thao. The fate of the car will mirror Walt’s own. The Gran Torino is Walt’s “immortality symbol”—a kind of religious relic, a symbol and sacrament of a time when, to Walt’s mind, life obviously made more sense.
All the homes in his neighborhood save his, where people like him used to live, are run-down and inhabited by folks “he used to kill and stack like wood.” Only later does he realize that the Hmong were actually allies of American forces.
The old Hmong woman wonders why he, like his kind, doesn’t just move. She seems not to understand that his home, where he made what passed for a good life with his wife and sons, is his castle, his fortress. Maintaining this property, like maintaining his car, is his last defense against change. He will not, it turns out, be saved by his work—at least not this kind of work. Walt is sick, and unto death it seems—another parable.
Begrudgingly and unwillingly, Walt becomes guardian angel to his neighbors. At first he is simply, and literally, defending his own “turf.” He remains an old soldier almost to the end, still lighting cigarettes with a First Calvary lighter he “got back in 51,” taking up his rifle when he can and wielding a pipe wrench or his fists and boot when the rifle is not available. Strength and weaponry have saved him thus far. But will they save him in the end?
If you have a “faith and film” series during Lent, this is a good one—if you can deal with the harsh language that is absolutely crucial to setting the table of Walt’s (and others’) prejudice.
Thomas R. Steagald is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stanley, N.C. A version of this review appeared first on his blog.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, and some violence.
Director: Clint Eastwood Writer: Nick Schenk Cast: Walt: Clint Eastwood: Father Janovich: Christopher Carley; Thao: Bee Vang: Sue: Aheny Her.