Atonement in Gran Torino

The new movie Gran Torino (2009) is a remarkable exclamation point to the Clint Eastwood film genre. From memorable earlier films like Dirty Harry and Unforgiven, we are accustomed to witnessing grim vigilante violence that poisons the avenger and leaves little room for hope. We are familiar by now with Clint Eastwood’s steely eyes, lined face, laconic speech, barely-suppressed rage and tortured soul—the very things that have made him an American cultural icon. Who would have guessed that Eastwood, now in his 70s, would go theological on us?

The details change from movie to movie, but over the years the basic Eastwood formula and character has remained the same. At the outset, then, we have every reason to expect that this movie will deliver the same, and as the movie plot unfolds and the tension builds we recognize the progressive stages and emerging shape of the anticipated violent showdown.

The movie is set in a declining, working-class neighborhood of Detroit, where Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) lives as a recently-widowed, and still grieving, retired Ford factory worker. The pride of his life is a mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino he keeps in his garage. Immigrants from Laos, Hmong people, are moving into the neighborhood, and one extended family ends up moving in right next door to him. Initially Kowalski is hostile and racist, and lets it all hang out. In fact, the racist epitaphs are so over-the-top that it ends up an outrageous spoof on stereotyping and prejudice. While he maintains his rough exterior, Kowalski’s heart is progressively softened toward his new neighbors, and he begins to adopt his familiar role as a strong enforcer, defending them against the intimidating Hmong gangs all around them.

Tension builds as usual, but the final showdown is out of character and quite unexpected. Instead of taking life, an unarmed Kowalski faces down a well-armed gang, and gives his bullet-ridden body and life for his friends, his neighbors—the harassed Hmong refugees next door. The camera swings up and over his slain body on the grass, resting now face upward in an unmistakable cruciform pose. The only one in the movie who really grasps what is enfolding is the young, and surprisingly winsome, Irish parish priest. It’s as though Eastwood has turned his whole movie genre—one that took a career to refine—upside down at the end.

According to Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen, three “theories” or explanations of the atonement of the death of Christ have prevailed through the centuries: the classic, the moral influence, and the objective satisfaction. According to the first, the cross is the means by which Christ conquers death and the forces of evil. According to the second, the cross is the means by which Christ wins our hearts. And according to the third, the cross is the means by which justice is served by a costly payment for sin being made. Many Christians believe that we best grasp the deep significance of the death of Christ by embracing the insights of all three theories.

It is fascinating to see how all three theories of the atonement are depicted in Gran Torino. Walt Kowalski essentially tricks the violent gang members into killing him in public, surrounded by many witnesses to his murder. At the end we see them being hauled off in handcuffs by the police, a sure sign that they have been rendered permanently powerless and no longer able to create fear in others. That’s the classic theory!

Walt wills his precious Gran Torino to the young Hmong fellow next door, and as the movie concludes we see him driving the car along the Lake Michigan waterfront, with Walt’s dog beside him. He is now an emboldened and empowered young man, able to differentiate himself from the bad influences of the neighborhood and inspired to life a life that will make the one who died for him proud. That’s the moral influence theory!

Why did Kowalski do it? Well, the reasons were complex no doubt, but through the course of the movie we come to discover that he is a Korean veteran still tortured by the memories of the enemy killing he did, and especially his unjustifiable murder of a helpless young Asian at chilling close quarters. This memory haunts him every day. In the end he protects the similar-in-appearance Hmong immigrants next door to him as an act of compensation or penance. You see, there is no evading the karma-like dictates of the human conscience. Sin cannot be blown off—it must be atoned by a commensurate sacrifice. This is the unyielding law of the moral universe. In the end a guilt-stricken and bitter man, bearing the weight of his part in Korean atrocities, makes his peace by giving his life for these same people.

A lot of Christian intellectual leaders today seem eager to abandon the doctrine of the atoning death of Christ. They see it as nothing more than an embarrassing, bloody artifact of a primitive religion. Gran Torino, not to mention some other recent movies—like Atonement (2007) and The Kite Flyer (2007), to name just two—suggests they might be wise to pause before jettisoning something that still resonates so strongly with human need and popular consciousness, even now in the twenty-first century. Good work, Clint!

6 Responses to Atonement in Gran Torino

  1. Gallet Watches August 15, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    This last weekend my wife and I flew to Colorado Springs, CO to visit or son Devon who has just returned from his initial 1 1/2 year tour in Mosul, Iraq, serving in the Army. While there the weather was dreadfully cold for our Southern California standards so last Saturday night we as a family found shelter in the movie theatre and likewise saw Gran Torino. From the trailers I knew that this movie was sure to be a great hit, but I had no idea how profound the movie truly was. After the film I turned to my wife and son and stated that this truly was Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece. The message of atonement, forgiveness and the spirit of divine restitution was loud and clear, and as you referenced with regards to the unmistakable cruciform pose of Eastwood’s body after his murder in the film. It it begs the question (in borrowing the inquiry of the late Francis Schaeffer) … of “How Should We Then Live”?

    Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) had lived in this Detroit suburb, and in the same way that he watched his wife grow ill and pass away, so too he saw the decline of his community from a point of life to that of gang violence, Godlessness, and the oppression and abuse of the weak at the hands of the strong and unrighteous. Truly, Kowalski’s initial reaction was not to turn the other check but instead to match them blow or blow (especially in the retaliatory act against the gang member) which brought even more hurt to his next door neighbors, but in the end you see a profound transformation in Eastwood’s character where in love he gives the ultimate sacrifice for his neighbors who themselves could not find the strength to rise against their oppressors. The moment Clint Eastwoord’s character was killed my wife and I together, without rehearsal, quoted aloud: “what greater love than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”! I think these words of Yeshua (Jesus) best describe this movie!

    Truly Adonai feels the pain and the hurt of those who are oppressed and hears the cry of those who sleep in the dust. We as the Body of Yeshua must daily respond in both love and sacrifice and to make our cause sure and true – that our hearts might ache and grieve for the things that grieve our Fathers heart. It was this grieving for us in our sinful isolation from Him which caused Him to send for us His only Begotten Son, to take upon himself that ultimate sacrifice when we too had not the strength to rise up against our oppressor and adversary the devil nor escape the darkness of our own souls! May Adonai be praised for the grace found in Messiah Yeshua. Shalom.

  2. Dave Harvey March 30, 2009 at 7:40 am #

    Chip-

    Though mere words cannot convey the stark horror, fear, revulsion, etc. that comes with the close, intimate killing of another human, there are authors who have sought to convey exactly that. One of the best is William Manchester’s memoir, “Goodbye, Darkness” – as he retraces his steps across the South Pacific some 30 years later and faces the dark memories that have plagued him. Another (surprising) one is “Storm of Steel” by Ernst Junger – a WWI autobiography of a German soldier who fought from the beginning to the bitter end, while being wounded along the way an incredible 14 times! First published in 1920, it predates (and surpasses, in my opinion) the more acclaimed “All Quiet On The Western Front” novel. As for movies, the best ones I’ve seen (as far as realism) are “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down.” The HBO series of both “Band of Brothers” and “Generation Kill” ae notable as well, though the language in the latter is pretty rough – as one might expect from a bunch of uncouth Marines during wartime.

    I did notice Walt’s ongoing medical issues – and suspected that his choice to leave Thao behind had as much to do with protecting the young Hmong teenager as it did with recognizing his own impending death – and determining that his self-sacrifice would not only provide freedom for his neighbors but also atone for his killing of the young Korean soldier all those years before.

    As you mentioned “war heroes,” Walt’s sacrifice reminds me of the recent account of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who deployed to Iraq with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, in Operation Phantom Fury. Here is an excerpt from his Navy Cross citation:

    “…during search and attack operations, while clearing the seventh house of the day, the point man opened a door to a back room and immediately came under intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents. The squad returned fire, wounding one insurgent. While attempting to maneuver out of the line of fire, Sergeant Peralta was shot and fell mortally wounded. After the initial exchange of gunfire, the insurgents broke contact, throwing a fragmentation grenade as they fled the building. The grenade came to rest near Sergeant Peralta’s head. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away. Sergeant Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sergeant Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

    “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
    -John 15:13 KJV

  3. Chip Thielen March 24, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    Wow, I’m glad i came to the blog. Very interesting comments. It made me re-examine my thoughts on the movie I first thought was rather superficial. Especially the pose on the ground at the end. I thought the depth of the movie showed two facts of life that although not necessarily theological are important to our society.

    The first is what war does to those who are forced to experience true hell on earth and its physical and psychological aftermath. I’ve not yet seen the movie or read the words that can possibly convey this horror. I think we need to try to understand and indeed find extra empathy in our attitudes to those who have. It must at the time force an extreme of prejudice to kill someone, especially a stranger.

    That brings me to the second point which is prejudice itself. I think that Walt, war participant or not, shows prejudice that almost all (really everyone does some pre-judging) people have. Luckily I feel that it is a superficial attitude in most. Walt shows this. He’s portrayed as overbearing and hostile. Yet when push comes to shove he, like most people, recognizes the basic core of humanity that we all share, discards his prejudice, and acts accordingly. Not just the act of sacrifice but his prior change of attitude toward his neighbors. How else could Obama be our president?

    I’m interested in the fact that no one mentioned that Walt was going to die anyway. Looked like he had a case of lung cancer that either he chose not to treat or, more likely, was untreatable. But he did then choose an honorable end as do most of our war “heroes”. That’s why they serve.

  4. Dave Harvey March 8, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    I’ve now seen the movie twice, once by myself and again with my wife. It was a profoundly moving event each time, for all the reasons you and others have enumerated. In addition to the strong theme of repentance, there’s also a skillful comparison of the results obtained by violence vs. love. When Walt goes to the gang members’ house to abuse and threaten the boy he finds there, the result is more violence – evidenced by the drive-by shooting and Sue’s injuries and degradation. However, when Walt puts down his weapons and offers himself has a sacrifice, the result is freedom from oppression for the whole Hmong community. Thus we see that violence only begets more violence, while love truly transforms.

    I sincerely hope that this movie is released on DVD in time for your next film theology class – there’s too much in it that relates to several of the themes in your class.

  5. Mark Rantz February 22, 2009 at 6:32 am #

    This last weekend my wife and I flew to Colorado Springs, CO to visit or son Devon who has just returned from his initial 1 1/2 year tour in Mosul, Iraq, serving in the Army. While there the weather was dreadfully cold for our Southern California standards so last Saturday night we as a family found shelter in the movie theatre and likewise saw Gran Torino. From the trailers I knew that this movie was sure to be a great hit, but I had no idea how profound the movie truly was. After the film I turned to my wife and son and stated that this truly was Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece. The message of atonement, forgiveness and the spirit of divine restitution was loud and clear, and as you referenced with regards to the unmistakable cruciform pose of Eastwood’s body after his murder in the film. It it begs the question (in borrowing the inquiry of the late Francis Schaeffer) … of “How Should We Then Live”?

    Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) had lived in this Detroit suburb, and in the same way that he watched his wife grow ill and pass away, so too he saw the decline of his community from a point of life to that of gang violence, Godlessness, and the oppression and abuse of the weak at the hands of the strong and unrighteous. Truly, Kowalski’s initial reaction was not to turn the other check but instead to match them blow or blow (especially in the retaliatory act against the gang member) which brought even more hurt to his next door neighbors, but in the end you see a profound transformation in Eastwood’s character where in love he gives the ultimate sacrifice for his neighbors who themselves could not find the strength to rise against their oppressors. The moment Clint Eastwoord’s character was killed my wife and I together, without rehearsal, quoted aloud: “what greater love than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”! I think these words of Yeshua (Jesus) best describe this movie!

    Truly Adonai feels the pain and the hurt of those who are oppressed and hears the cry of those who sleep in the dust. We as the Body of Yeshua must daily respond in both love and sacrifice and to make our cause sure and true – that our hearts might ache and grieve for the things that grieve our Fathers heart. It was this grieving for us in our sinful isolation from Him which caused Him to send for us His only Begotten Son, to take upon himself that ultimate sacrifice when we too had not the strength to rise up against our oppressor and adversary the devil nor escape the darkness of our own souls! May Adonai be praised for the grace found in Messiah Yeshua. Shalom.

  6. Kate Smoot February 22, 2009 at 3:16 am #

    I actually watched “Grand Torino” last night with my husband. I also was surprised and moved by the ending, and happy to see a positive popular depiction of Christianity! However, neither I nor John felt like Eastwood’s death was enough. While it did free the neighborhood (at least for a while) from the gang members’ violence, it didn’t undo what they had already done – especially to Sue. To me, the movie highlighted not just the necessity of self-sacrificial love to effect transformation, but our dire need to believe in an afterlife in order for a truly good and truly just God to exist. In the face of ruthless, systemic violence that still seems to triumph over the quiet inroads of love, the only ultimate answer we have to the victims (and perpetrators!) is that a God who sees all, of truth as well as grace, justice as well as mercy, will have the final say. God not only extends His hand to help us up, but we can gain the strength to walk on and forgive in the confidence that justice dealt by a good and true God will win in the end, whatever that looks like.