This is part 2 of a film reading on the movie Gran Torino
As I mentioned in part 1, violence and its use is a big theme in this movie. Walt Kowalski, having been in the Korean war, is very familiar with violence. We don’t discover how familiar until much later. In the meantime, he uses the threat of a gun to remove gang members from his lawn, and a similar threat to save the young Hmong girl, Sue, from a couple of guys bent on causing her trouble. He used the gun also to protect his prized Gran Torino from theft. Protection, either of his own property or self, or the self and property of others, for Walt, comes at the end of a gun. At least for starters.
As Kowalski relates to the Hmong neighbors, it seems a change comes over him. Instead of being quite so dedicated to keeping things as they were, essentially forcibly keeping the culture separate, instead he starts bringing people together. The incarnation as I discussed above becomes more important than maintaining some sort of separation. In other words, Walt begins to love these people. Love does strange things. It makes a lonely old man become a welcome addition to the community. It makes young, shy boys into bold confident men.
Something interesting begins to happen in that Walt starts to see the effect that violence has on the Hmong community with the gangs and such. And beyond just his neighbors, the violence in the neighborhood is a problem that keeps people apart and fearful. No one says anything about the gangs because the threat of violence is so great that they fear for their own lives in the face of such inhumanity.
It’s not exactly clear when Walt realizes this. Perhaps he caught some inkling of this idea watching the young man doing work around the neighborhood. Perhaps it was the incredible blessing he received when he was invited to the Hmong family gathering. But I know one point for certain that changed him. Walt used violence in retaliation of the bullying and violence done on the boy, Thao (burning with a cigarette, taking his tools, etc.). He brutalized the second in command to punish them for the mistreatment. In return, the gang shoots up the house, wounding the boy in the process. But that’s not the worst part. They kidnap, beat up, and rape Sue, the young lady who showed him grace in the first place and helped him find meaning himself. His violence towards the gang simply brought about more violence. Nothing was resolved, in fact it just got worse.
Walt is pressured to solve the problem, to get some guns and go back and settle things. After all, that’s the way things are done. I think it shocked Walt when Thao, the boy, makes the suggestion, realizing that while he was trying to save Thao from that life of violence that the violence was still present and a clear option for the Thao. That instead of being involved in gang violence, Thao was just ready to opt for the violence of revenge. That has to be a shock. It’s like rescuing a puppy from being hit by a truck only to back over it in your own driveway.
Throughout the film, we know that there is something plaguing Walt’s life from his past in the war. The priest suspects and tries to get him to come to confession to no avail. Walt does eventually confess, but not to the priest. After his “bucket list” is complete (an interesting intertextual connection to the movie by that name in the previous year), Walt calls young Thao over to his house on the pretext to help move a freezer. Upon locking Thao in the basement, Walt finally confesses (notice, in the film, the confessional screen of the gate to the basement) about how violence and its effects have plagued Walt ever since the war, to tell Thao that he does not want him to have to face the same nightmares.
The next scene is by far the most powerful I have seen in movies in a long time. In the darkness, in the danger of the depths of the depravity of the gang’s home turf, surrounded by the threat of violence, Walt confronts the gang. He knows from earlier conversations, that the rest of the community is scared to say anything about the gang because all they know is the violence. Walt is now loved by the community and he is there, their hero, to set things right. Violence has ruled the neighborhood for a long time and it appears, at first, that violence will set things right. And in a way, it did. Walt is gunned down for reaching for, of all things, a lighter (a little irony since we see that lighter earlier where Thao comments, about smoking, “Those things will kill you”). The result of his violent death, killed by the very thing that characterized his life, was to expose the violence in the community for what it was and to bring an end to it. It embarrassed the powers that be to such a point that the previously fearful community finally called the police. An innocent, unarmed man was gunned down for no good reason.
This is one view of the atoning work of Jesus, actually. His death on the cross at the hands of an unjust ruler, accused by unjust means, with an accusation that, itself, was unjust, revealed to the world the injustice that infects all of society, from the least (Judas and Peter) to the greatest (Pilate and Rome). By submitting and sacrificing to the violence, he showed the world the truth. Walt Kowalski did the same. He lived the violence. He knew what violence does to a person. It did it to him. He knew intimately the temptation of vengeance and retribution. And he saw it happen to the family of aliens that he came to love. So, instead of continuing the violence, instead, he gave up his life. Self-sacrifice, not as payment or retribution or absolution (although one could see it as him paying for his past sins), but as redemption. The violence done on him, because of his refusal to use violence himself, changed that violence for the good of bringing redemption to the Hmong community and freedom to that family to live a life without fear. And if there is any doubt about this, one only has to look at the final pose of Walt Kowalski, laid out on the screen, to see exactly what the director wanted us to see. We see a man, laid out, arms outstretched, legs straight out, cruciform in shape. “No man has a greater love than he lay down his life for his friends.”
Is violence something that believers ever are called to employ? I don’t know, to be truthful. I have a hard time, personally, seeing how, in light of the precious nature of all human life. The effects of violence on society, where violence done in vengeance or retribution seems to only bring about more of the same, speaks to me of the futility of violence when it comes to solving problems. This is what I see. But I am just a human and there are times when I am not always sure.
But I do know one thing. There is something extremely powerful about the selfless act of complete and total sacrifice of one’s own life for the benefit of someone else. To take a situation in which there seems no other way out than to fight or die and then to very deliberately choose to die impacts everyone around the person. A death that is simply dying for your own purposes does nothing. A death that comes while you, yourself, are engaged in violence, does come across as heroic. But a death that comes on the behalf and benefit of someone else when you, yourself, are seemingly undeserving of that death, that is Christ. He didn’t have to die, and yet he submitted to the violence because, by doing so, we have the hope of life.
I don’t know where Clint Eastwood stands when it comes to faith, religion, Christianity, etc. The purpose of reading a film such as Gran Torino is not to seek out Christian films and find Christianity in them, but to seek out films in which we can find truth. Because we do serve a big God and that big God does whisper and nudge even those who do not acknowledge it. What I see in this story is a nod in the direction of Christ. If Christ were to come to the urban neighborhoods today, I don’t know if he would look like Walt. But I would not be at all surprised that, if he DID come into that context, if he wouldn’t do the same thing as Walt and turn the violence of gang warfare around into the freedom of life without fear. I saw Christ in this film, speaking to our culture, showing a different way of confronting the evils of this world. And it moved me.