I rarely enjoy Clint Eastwood’s films (too violent and nihilistic for me). But my husband Lolo is a fan, and so I got a VCD of Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, for him to watch.

I had read that it was “What Dirty Harry Would Be Like As an Old Man”.

But as we watched it, I was astonished to find that the film was not about violence and revenge, but about reconciliation, forgiveness, and expiation. Instead of the “bigoted old man shoot ’em up” I had expected, I found the finger of grace.

Author Andrew Greeley describes a concept that he calls “The Catholic Imagination“:  The idea of the sacramental in daily life: the idea that God’s grace is everywhere.

The “sacramental” in daily life means that ordinary things hint of the presence of God, whether it be the “Gran Torino” (the icon of perfection that Walt yearns for in life) or the priest who pops up on and off to remind Walt that his wife loved him and wanted him to find peace with God.

In Gran Torino, the main character, Walt Kowalski, is not very sympathetic. He is gruff and insults everyone, including the priest. In some ways, Walt is a caricature of a blue collar worker–and indeed, the choice of the name “Kowalski” (which is used as short hand in many movies as short hand for “dumb Polish bigot”) didn’t seem very hopeful.

But then the movie changes: For Kowalski, confronted with a gang attack on his neighbor, intervenes a la “dirty Harry”, and saves the boy’s life.

Why does he intervene? Because he can. He has a gun, and knows how to use it.

Few critics recognize that one theme of the film is about a veteran with Post Traumatic stress syndrome, or that much of Walt’s inability to bond with his sons is due to his shutting down the ability to feel emotions, which is one way that those who have lived through terrible events cope with the memories. With the loss of his wife and no longer being able to stay busy to stop his memories, he is forced to confront his war experience, both good and bad.

Yet being a veteran has also left him with another ability: The ability to use controlled violence when needed.

Most civilians, when confronted with an attack, will be unable to respond, or will use humor or cooperation or try a peaceful resolution to stop the attack. The whole point is that the Hmong are terrified by the gang, knowing that if they dare to report an attack or robbery, that the other members of the gang will revenge themselves on the entire family.

But those who have lived through a war have been baptized into the knowledge that there are evil people out there whose actions can only be controlled by direct confrontation by someone who has more power than they do.

Walt has become their “savior”.

So when the Hmong people, to thank Walt Kowalski for his protection of his neighbors against a gang attack, bring him food, we see the women, in traditional dress, carrying the items as if the gift was holy: Which of course it is. Like the Eucharist, food is a symbol of thanksgiving, a way to strengthen the body and soul, and a gift of thanksgiving. But food also means community, welcoming him as part of the extended Hmong family. It is the food that helps Walt to starts to integrate his life with his neighbors.

The middle part of the movie is Walt’s mentoring of a young Hmong geek, Thao,  into the ways of America.

He teaches the boy to clean up and fix the houses of those neighbors who are too old or young to do the heavy work. Such neighborly help is common in small towns and ethnic neighborhoods, where men get together and help fix each other’s houses, not waiting for a “government grant” and “americorp” workers to do the work.

He even arranges a construction job for him with his friends.

Again, this is a two way street: with Walt helping the boy, but also Walt learning to be a father.  The boy is a “sacrament”, a means of God’s grace and love, to heal Walt’s heart.

The climax is when Walt again goes to confront the gang, who has assaulted the boy’s sister.

Walt prevents the boy Thao from joining him, telling him that he cannot come along: because the deed that haunts Walt’s own life was not the war, but the fact that he shot a soldier trying to surrender.

Yes, one can rationalize, many of those “surrenders” were traps for American troops, but how does one know if it was a trap, or just a boy who wanted to live, and you killed him?

The ending. where Walt does confront the gang, also echoes the sacrifice of the cross: By his death, Walt finds his own redemption, and destroys the gang without firing a shot. For those who don’t see the simile, the filmmakers have him fall with arms outstretched, as on a cross.

One should also note that the “subthemes” of Catholicism are also there

The priest starts as a caricatures, but with later scenes is shown as a devout and hard working young man who is trying his best to help.

Finally, the film starts and ends with a church service: at the start, it seems meaningless, but at the end, it emphasizes the lessons that Walt was allowed to teach others.

It is not the church services that make Gran Torino an example of “the Catholic imagination”, but that the filmmakers echo the themes of cultural Catholicism: the church as family, that we find God in our relationship with others, and that greater love hath no man than one who lays down his life for his friend.

So there you have it: A film about an honorable veteran and one that places religion in a sympathetic light.

No wonder it was passed over by the Academy awards.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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