Friday, October 2, 2009

Gran Torino -- unforgiven and dead while living

Director: Clint Eastwood, 2008.

Take a grumpy old man who has just become a widower, put a boy/teen in his path and watch the relationship develop, softening the grizzled curmudgeon in the process. That's the plotline for Up right? Yes, but also for Gran Torino, a decidedly non-family friendly film. Both are fine movies, but this one is filled with racial slurs, four-letter cursings, and bursts of violence. Although prejudice and racism are prevalent, they are the vehicle, the Gran Torino that carries the themes of sacrifice, love, redemption, and reflections on life.

It starts with a funeral in a catholic church. Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood in his professed final acting role) stands stiffly beside the coffin of his beloved wife, looking disgustedly at everyone else present. Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), the young priest, intoning the eulogy, gives an indication of these grand themes: "Some may ask, what is death. Is it the end? Or is it the beginning? And what is life? What is this thing called life?" Eastwood will explore these questions through the eyes and the life of Kowalski.

At the wake in his home in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood that has seen better days, Kowalski realizes he is alone now. His sons are strangers to him. He has no real relationship with them or with his grandchildren. Only his dog, Daisy, and his prize Gran Torino, a muscle car in perfect condition, give him any joy.

When the teenage neighbor boy, Thao (Bee Vang), a quiet and submissive Hmong, is persuaded to go through an initiation rite for a local Hmong gang, he must steal Kowalski's trophy car. Big mistake. He is caught in the act and this brings shame to the Asian family. In an act of reparation and redemption, the mother forces Thao, whom Kowalski ignorantly calls "Toad," to make recompense. This begins the process of relationship building. But it is Thao's sister, Sue Lor (Ahney Her), who really instigates and cultivates this outreach of friendship. Determination, even when cursed and dismissed, wins her over in Kowalski's mind. She becomes his friend. She is the "heart" of the film.

Kowalski's racism and anti-anything non-American prejudice is over-the-top, but communicates his failure to move on from his Korean war days. (Eastwood himself was a Korean war vet, though he saw no action.) Racism was common then, even accepted. Caucasian Americans made up the norm. Now, the demographics have changed. America is much more of a melting pot. And racism and racial slurs are unacceptable by all but the most-bigoted.

As followers of Jesus, we affirm the equality and dignity of all people, regardless of race (Col. 3:11). There is no place for prejudice based on skin color. Even separated by language barriers there is no cause for discrimination and avoidance. We can and should seek to become friends, united with common hope.

Indeed, Eastwood gives us a picture of such racial reconciliation in the character arc of Kowalski. As he interacts with Sue and Thao, he begins to soften towards them. He may maintain a gruff exterior but his heart is melting. Although it is somewhat predictable, it is fun to see Eastwood in a tour-de-force performance showing this change.

There are some very funny scenes in Gran Torino which give it some levity. Most concern Kowalski's slow understanding of the Hmong community. As Kowalski and Thao start to interact, he becomes a mentor for the lad. He teaches him how to be a man in America: "Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone." How true! Then, he teaches him how men banter with mock-insults in an hilarious interchange with his barber (John Carroll Lynch, Fargo).

As the film progresses, Kowalski, who has been in all kinds of situations in war, finds himself in a place he never dreamt he would be: his Hmong neighbor's kitchen eating Hmong food amongst a party of non-English speakers. Surprisingly, he mutters to himself, "I've got more in common with these goddamned gooks than my own spoiled-rotten family." He has connected with the Hmong. Despite the sadness implicit in this self-understanding, it underscores the need for relationship. God has made us with a need to live in community (Rom. 12:16). That community need not be homogeneous, of one kind. It is probably better to be heterogeneous, made up of a rainbow of colors and creeds. We are called to love those around us (Matt. 5:44, Jn. 13:34).

Kowalski was learning this. Yet his realization stuns him. He literally looks himself in the mirror in the Hmong bathroom and sees his life afresh. The last 50 years since his days in Korea have been lived in suspicion and tension. He has not let his guard down. He has not relaxed. He has not let anyone near, including his sons. And as a result he doesn't know them and they don't know him. This is no way to live.

Kowalski's relationship with the young priest is another key to the film and to the character arc. His initial view of Father Janovich is not good: "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." But Janovich is persistent, both to befriend him and to invite his confession. And he offers a cutting observation to Walt: "Sounds like you know more about death than you do about living." Kowalski has dealt death before, and is now living a dead life. He has not really lived in half a century.

Kowalski is like many of us. We are alive on the outside and dead or dying on the inside. We have been hurt; we carry the scars of earlier relationships. We are afraid of letting others near. But this is no way to live. We live by giving ourselves away, by opening ourselves and our hearts to others. In this way we create genuine relationships. Further, until we walk in a genuine relationship with Jesus, the Lord and Creator of our world, we are simply dead men walking. We can come into this relationship by simple faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:9), accepting his sacrifice for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).

Gran Torino presents a contrast between the old and the new. Of course Walt's car itself contrasts with the brand new Japanese minivan that his son drives. Indeed, Kowalski worked for 50 years for Ford while his son sells Japanese. Further, Thao and Sue, even Father Janovich, represent the new who embrace the present. Whereas old Walt is living in the past. He can't accept the changes that the present has brought, let alone those that lie in the future. His American neighbors have gone, replaced by Hmong. Some critics have even suggested that the movie is a metaphor for the death of the American automobile industry, typified by Ford. Whatever, it is clear that the old can and must learn from the new. They must adapt to survive, even to live. But the young can learn from the old also, as Thao discovers through his interactions with Kowalski. The old and the young can form a mutually beneficial partnership in this way.

In another of the key interchanges with the priest, Father Janovich tells Walt,
It seems that it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible, being ordered to kill, killing to save others, killing to save yourself. You’re right, those are things I don’t know anything about. But I do know about forgiveness. And I’ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who were ordered to do appalling things and are now
at peace.
Janovich has seen into Walt's soul and it is dark and filled with regret and shame. Like the Hmong family, shame has descended on Walt. But unlike his Hmong neighbors, Walt has done nothing about it for decades. He has become shriveled, haunted by his demons. Eastwood likes to explore this concept. He won best picture Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, and here his hero is unforgiven -- both by himself and by others. In fact, he won't give others the chance to forgive him for the unspoken sins he has committed.

Living with shame, with unforgiven sins, is a burden that will break the back and kill the soul of even the strongest of men. We can ill afford to walk this life with sins unforgiven. The apostle John told us that, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins" (1 Jn 1:9). God is gracious to us. We experience mercy and forgiveness in Jesus as we come to God in confession through Christ. An unconfessed life is an unforgiven life, and this life is filled with regret. Like Kowalski it can only lead to a form of dying.

Gran Torino moves to a dark and shocking conclusion, befitting the older Eastwood. Gone are the blow-them-away days of Dirty Harry Callahan. Now there is a mature reality in its place. And Kowalski is a rounded, if not perfect character. As he faces his demons, he makes us face ours. Are we walking around dead inside, filled with prejudice and hate, regretting our past, yet not forgiving ourselves? Or have we met our Father in heaven, who can and will forgive us and turn us into new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17) who have the fullness of life (Jn. 10:10)? Let's hope it's the latter.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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