(This was my manuscript for part two of my God Talk series, “God and Film”. The featured movie was Gran Torino, and this manuscript came after viewing the film, which would also be the best way to read it.)
While it was snubbed by the Oscars, Gran Torino garnered a lot of critical acclaim for Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing in 2008. The film deals with life and death, race, violence, gang activity, and even theology, centered around Walt Kowalski and his Gran Torino.
Before we get too far in, I want to say that this movie is in no way a perfect analogy for Christian theology. I’m going to be drawing similarities and parallel’s between Eastwood’s character and Christ, but the metaphor does not extend to the furthest degree. Walt’s anger, racism, crudeness and propensity toward violence demonstrate a stark contrast to the character of Jesus Christ. But I do believe that in some ways, Walt is a Christ-figure. Let’s not forget that we ourselves are intended to be “Christ-figures”, and we fail mightily at the same task.
It does appear that the film wants to be understood theologically, at least to a degree. The character of the priest serves to show the presence, but also limitations of religion in the story. Over time, Walt becomes more receptive to hearing what the priest has to say to him, but only somewhat. Even his confession is superficial, and we find him actually confessing to Thao in the next scene. Despite the character’s anti-religious nature, this movie wants to talk about life and death, salvation and forgiveness.
Walt’s new neighbors are what set the plot in motion. We see Walt slowly being won over to these people who need help, despite years and years of engrained racism and callousness, due in part to his experience in the Korean War. Eventually, though, these barriers are broken down. Now, if Walt is to be seen as a Christ figure, this process can be seen as an Incarnation. Again, the analogy is not perfect, but we see Walt becoming immersed in the culture and forever linked with the destiny of a people that were not his own, just as Jesus was incarnate “for us, and for our salvation”, as the Nicene creed reads. Walt’s “incarnation” into the culture of the Hmong people next door became for that family their salvation on a few occasions, especially in the end.
By this part of the story, it becomes obvious that something big has to happen to free the Hmong family from the violence of the gang. The gang kidnaps and abuses Sue, in their climactic act of evil. We are set up for a final shootout, as Thao and Walt talk revenge and the priest fears the worst. The film brilliantly uses Clint Eastwood’s history as a Western action hero to play with our expectations. Clint Eastwood has faced worse odds than this! We the audience wonder if this will be Eastwood in old fashion, concocting a brilliant scheme to blow the bad guys out of the water. We accept the narrative that violence is the only answer. Either the Hmong family will be killed or the gangs will be killed.
I think the situation portrayed in the film is comparable to that faced by the first century Israelites at the time of Jesus. Whether you see the freeing work of Jesus as related to evil in a spiritual sense, or sin, or physical, embodied oppression by political and religious systems, the New Testament talks of our situation as being enslaved, trapped, unable to free ourselves from the situation we are in. God’s people were looking for a messiah to come in like a war-hero, setting them free from Roman rule and establishing a literal kingdom on earth for them to flourish. Instead, they got Jesus.
This is where Walt truly becomes the Christ figure. Both challenge these forces of evil through small defiant acts. Walt challenged the gangs as they cornered Sue, or showed up on the Hmong’s lawn; Jesus cast out demons, reinterpreted the law, and claimed to be the Son of God. Walt refuses to allow the gang to control the destiny of those he has come to care about, and it leads to his death; Jesus challenges the political, religious, and spiritual forces of evil that held us captive and they put him on a cross.
As Walt falls to his death, arms spread out and feet together, as if on a cross of his own, we realize that he didn’t come to return violence for violence, but to take the violence upon himself and break the cycle. His sacrifice made a public spectacle of evil, and the witnesses are all the police need to finally put this gang behind bars.
Walt’s death is a way to talk about what we call in theology “atonement theory”. This simply means trying to explain how the crucifixion/resurrection event provides for our salvation. There are many theories about this, but one is helpfully imaged here. Confronting the powers led to Jesus’ death on the cross, just as Walt’s confronting the gang led to his. But both of these deaths are victorious, because they both administer a death blow to the Powers by not conforming to them, but by submitting to them and thereby exposing them. John Howard Yoder writes, “The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince us that they were the divine regents of the world.” Just as the Jews expected a militaristic Messiah, the audience expects the Clint Eastwood finale of Dirty Harry or another classic. Instead, Walt uses the violence of the gang against them by submitting to it, and exposing their nature to the public so that their myth could be dispelled, and the neighborhood could be free of their oppression. The film’s climax exemplifies what Paul writes in Colossians 2:13-15: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
Again, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it wasn’t intended to be. What I believe we have instead is a reflection on the nature of sacrifice, and how the cycle of violence is broken. This same idea has been picked up on by many theologians on how Jesus accomplishes victory on the cross, and then ultimately in Resurrection. What I appreciate most about this movie is that it helps us talk about atonement that includes elements of sacrifice, even substitution, but avoids the unhelpful ways that many Christian traditions accept those terms. Many atonement theories say that Jesus took the punishment that we deserved, and becomes the substitute for our penalty. The problem is, this sets up a very violent, vengeful God, who is out for blood and for punishment and is “appeased” by the death of Jesus. More problematic, it makes it seem like Jesus and God are working toward different ends, and God is ultimately thwarted by Jesus. God is working against Godself in this model. Using GranTorino, though, we see an example of someone dying in someone else’s place, and sacrificing themselves to set another free, without returning violence for violence, without harmful views of punishment and what is deserved, and ultimately performed out of love and compassion. Just like Jesus, Walt’s death stems from love, and accomplishes their salvation.
I will now open it up to discussion. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Both? What else do you see in this movie?