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!

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