I recently re-watched the movie Gran Torino on HBO the other day. This is the critically acclaimed 2008 movie starring Clint Eastwood, who also produced and directed this film, as Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and retired Ford factory worker who was recently widowed.
The movie opens with the funeral of his wife, and we’re immediately introduced to the character of Walt. He is a crusty old war veteran who’s 1950’s worldview is in direct clash to the realities around him. His two sons reaped the benefits of his hard work, but fail miserably to understand him and Walt didn’t really put relating to his sons as a priority. Most of his friends have either moved out or have died and his neighborhood has completely transformed from blue collar, white, immigrant workers to a largely Hmong (Vietnamese refugees) community.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest of the story; if not, I don’t want to spoil too much for you. As I was reflecting on the movie, several thoughts came to mind. First, was Walt’s racism. I’m torn on this point. On the one hand, Walt’s constant use of racial and ethnic pejoratives is very unsettling to our politically correct ears, and I can imagine that many would be turned off by the fact that this movie made such a bigoted man its main protagonist.
However, I think it is a bit unfair to judge Walt on our 21st century ideas of political correctness. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to excuse Walt’s highly insensitive comments. What I am trying to say is that we are attributing our modern day motives to Walt. In other words, I don’t think Walk disliked his Hmong neighbors solely for the fact that they were Hmong, nor do I think he disliked them any more than he disliked anyone else. Walt is definitely a product of a bygone era. In Walt’s world, racial pejoratives were used on one’s friends as well as on one’s enemies (as witnessed by his banter with the Italian barber and the Irish construction worker). Furthermore, he was never offended when people used the same tactics on him.
Another thing that struck me about the movie was Walt’s sense of duty. We first see it demonstrated with the encounter between his teenage Hmong neighbor and the three African American youths on the street corner. Despite his dislike toward his neighbors, he was not about to leave her alone in that compromising situation. He comes to her rescue, not because he likes her, but because it was the right thing to do.
Another example of this is his protection of Thao from the Hmong street gang. Again, not necessarily motivated by a liking for his neighbors, but because it is the right thing to do, Walt risks his life to intervene with the street gang. This trait in Walt is also a product of a bygone era when more often than not, people did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.
I don’t say this to infer that we don’t do that now, but our society isn’t as motivated to take the initiative to help others as much as it was in the past. We are slowly, but surely becoming a “Nanny State.” As such, we expect government to take care of us instead of us taking care of us. This stifles self-reliance in helping ourselves and others.
The final thing that struck me was God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. What?!?!? How did I make that connection? The bible teaches that we’re totally depraved and that we are incapable of doing any good before God (Romans 1:18 – 3:9). Yet, in this movie we see a lonely, angry man embrace a Hmong family he has nothing in common with and end up sacrificing himself in order to protect them from a dead end life. How can this not be good?
Here’s the thing, even in our depraved state, we are capable of doing humanitarian good. This would be the vestigial state of our being created in the image of God, and as Paul says in the opening chapters of Romans, it’s enough to condemn us (Romans 1:32). We’re not told what motivated Walt to do what he did. Was it guilt? Concern? Compassion? We don’t know. I can tell you this, it was not done to glorify his Creator God. All throughout the movie, Walt is ambivalent at best regarding the Christian faith (he’s a lapsed Catholic). Before the final encounter the Hmong gang, he goes to confession. Not out of any real guilt or remorse over what he’s done in his life (he does feel guilt and remorse, but expresses no real regrets), but more to honor the dying wishes of his late wife.
We, the viewers, are left to assume that by this last act of self sacrifice, Walt has somehow redeemed his life and can die in peace. It’s a wonderful thought if true. However, the only redemption for a fallen humanity is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).