This is part 1 of a film reading on the movie Gran Torino.
In our current culture today, at least among many in the mainstream, violent actions are seen as the means to the desired end. While it is not always described as the preferred means, it is at least given as an option citing “if there is no other way…”. We could probably have a lot of long conversations debating that point back and forth.
But into this conversation comes the movie Gran Torino, both directed and starring an actor whose films seem to center around the use of violence to solve problems, Clint Eastwood. What is really curious about this is that, in this film, while the main character has a history of violence, in the end, he ends up not using violence and even finds a radical way of confronting violence in order to bring a resolution to a matter of justice. A plot summary and synopsis, as usual, are available on the IMDB website so I’ll assume that you have either read that or seen the film.
I see this film as a Christ allegory because, thematically, there is a LOT in this movie that points back to Jesus’ life and actions. First of all, there is a serious difference in culture represented in the film, between the comfortable middle-class white American and the ghettoized multi-cultural non-white urban communities. In our general narrative in the US, these two cultures are so different in characteristics, economics, social dynamics, etc., that to conceive of them actually existing side-by-side in some sort of amiable relationship is alien to us. And yet, that is the case in this film, but with the expected frictions. This is where the first Christ action happens, in that Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood’s character), through a series of events, begins to involve himself in the lives of his Hmong neighbors. An privileged person, with means, ability, and power, steps into the lives of the underprivileged and by doing so begins a process of transforming their lives, not necessarily in conformity of the “accepted” standard of society. The young boy gets a job, gets encouragement, finds a voice, finds self-esteem, and begins to feel acceptance. The family in general begins to feel the connection of community and find an advocate into the outside world. In a way, Kowalski was “incarnated” into their society.
In contrast, Walt’s own family doesn’t seem to get him. The filmmakers seem to accent the point of relationship being more than just presence but involvement by showing how Walt’s children simply see him as an old man to be tolerated and don’t really listen to him. They are in it for their own gain, seeking to get the house, and just simply want to put him aside and out of the way. This contrast shows the big difference between charity and relationship. Walt, crusty as he was, was considerably more Christ-like in this perspective, than the clean-cut family of his own children.
Into this dynamic, we have the priest who is supposed to know better. And yet, he also doesn’t quite seem to get it. He has his priestly duties and a mission to the Hmong in the neighborhood and yet his early attempts to relate to Walt fall flat because he is very obviously the outsider who just doesn’t “get it”. The priest even says in the film that he has been trying to reach the Hmong and get into their society but has met very little success. The turning point for the priest seems to be suggesting a turning point for the watcher. We have the contrast between Walt and his family, instructing us in the difference between charity and involvement, and we are left with trying to figure out how to make that transition. The priest shows us one way: step down into darkness. After the rape and shooting and all that nastiness, the priest finally pays a visit to Walt. Every other visit has been in the light, in the “clean” environment of either the church or Walt’s brightly lit home. But this one visit is significant in that it is dark, gloomy, and depressing. Walt is sitting alone in the darkness, drinking beer, and in steps the priest. And instead of platitudes, the priest gets his own beer and sits in the dark with Walt, sharing grief together. When Jesus came to earth, he did much the same. He became a human to experience humanity so that, when we face troubles, we know that he, also, knows what it’s like to deal with the troubles of humanity. Walt Kowalski did this with his integration into the Hmong family, and the priest learned from Walt.
Read part 2 for more about this Christ allegory.