It’s amazing where you can find Christ.
In many respects, Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino is a bleak affair. It tells the story of Walt, a traumatised Korean War veteran who deals with the pain of his memories by hiding behind a wall of crusty misanthropy and bitter racism. Walt’s life is locked into a dead end of re-cycled routine – disguised as “discipline” and “orderliness” – and excessive drinking. Even his family life has been infected: he is all but estranged from his sons and their families; and now that he is a widower, his life has been reduced to one of lonely isolation.
All this begins to change when a Hmong family move in next door. The Hmong are a mountain people who inhabit the highlands of Vietnam, Laos, and China; recruited by the CIA to fight the Viet Cong, they were abandoned to their fate when America withdrew from the Vietnam War. Persecution forced many Hmong to flee to the United States, where, like generations of immigrants before them, they faced poverty, exclusion, and the resentment of locals.
Walt is no different. He expresses his hostility through frequent resort to racist epithets; and his first encounter with the family is a confrontation in which he brandishes a rifle and tells them to get off his front lawn. But this event has unexpected consequences: for what he fails to realise is that by his actions he has saved a shy, introverted Hmong boy, Tao, and his intelligent, no-nonsense sister Su, from the clutches of a local Hmong gang. Soon, the local Hmong people begin leaving Walt presents of flowers and food – and, gradually, they begin to win him over with their gentle, humble hospitality, although Walt maintains a facade of contempt and hostility.
One of the lynchpins of the story is the relationship between Su and Walt. Su is perceptive enough to realise that Walt cannot express his emotions in conventional ways, and so gets under his skin by resorting to Walt’s own tactics: she talks back to him, calls him “Wally” just to annoy him, and generally gives back to Walt as much as he dishes out. It is through this matrix of apparent hostility that we glimpse the shattered depths of Walt’s humanity – and which makes Walt a believable, three-dimensional character, not a cardboard cut-out “Dirty Harry” replica. The other lynchpin is the relationship between Walt and Tao. The boy is forced upon Walt as a kind of bondsman after the family feel they owe a debt of honour to Walt. Walt sees that Tao’s problem is that he is trapped between two impossible alternatives: either the dead-end of gang membership or entrapment within Hmong cultural expectations. So Walt sets out to teach Tao how to break into the American cultural mainstream from which he is excluded – which includes one truly hilarious scene in which Walt and his equally curmudgeonly barber instruct Tao in the art of talking like a “real man”.
But this “apprenticeship” has a downside: when the Hmong gang carry out revenge upon Su for their humiliation at Walt’s hands, Tao wants to react in the macho, aggressive manner for which Walt is, in many ways, the symbol and exemplar. Walt’s dilemma is that, having primed Tao in assertiveness, he must divert him from the self-destructive course of vengeance. This is the basis of the film’s powerful and moving conclusion: Walt must emerge from the cocoon of his own suffering in an act of self-giving love that is both redemption and healing for himself, and a source of future hope for Tao and Su.
It is the enactment of this love that makes Walt one of the most surprising and yet effective Christ-like characters thrown up by popular culture in recent years – more so than the too-obvious Aslan or the too-good-to-be-true Harry Potter. It is precisely because Walt is such an unattractive figure that makes his love for Tao and Su all the more remarkable and moving: because it represents the courage of a broken human being to rise above their brokenness and self-absorption for the sake of others. Walt is human – all-too-human – and this represents both his greatest shame and his greatest glory. He is a figure who offers us hope precisely because he seems so alienated from hope.
And yet the likeness of Christ resonates throughout Gran Torino, especially in the metaphor of hospitality. The offerings of food by the Hmong to Walt, their acceptance of him at their social functions, and his eventual invitation to Tao, Su, and their friends to share a meal, all echo Jesus’ own preparedness to bring the Kingdom into human lives through the vehicle of shared hospitality (eg: Mk3:15-20; 3: 23-28; 6:30-44; 8:1-8). And just as sharing a meal breaks down barriers between people – as it does for Walt and his Hmong neighbours – so the metaphor of the meal represents the coming of the Kingdom; for the Kingdom is nothing if not the overcoming of the barrier of humanity’s alienation from God. Just as Christ enabled human salvation by bridging the gap created by human brokenness, so Walt enables his own redemption – and offers a path toward redemption for the Hmong – by reaching across the barriers of his own prejudice and bitterness.
Gran Torino is not easy watching: it is confronting in its pull-no-punches approach to racism, social decay and violence. But it is a superbly crafted, and deeply moving, account of the possibility for hope and redemption. And in the character of Walt, Eastwood has created a Christ for a modern world – and a modern church – confronted by despair and hopelessness; a Christ who proclaims that anguish and anxiety will not have the final word, and that the light of grace can overcome the dark potentials of the human heart.
(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.