Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Redemptive Clint Eastwood Movie?

(Spoiler Alert!)

I saw Gran Torino last night. Normally I do not watch Clint Eastwood movies. I struggle enough with thoughts of vengeance and violent impulses in my own soul: I do not need to stir up those passions by watching a misunderstood but basically good loner be pushed by evil men to acts of vengeance and murder which seem unquestionably noble in the context of the movie. At least that's what I expect from a Clint Eastwood movie.

Someone I trust, however, suggested that I see it. She said that my wife would not appreciate it but I would. She was right. I really liked it, but my wife wouldn't get it. Of course "like" is a tricky word. I did not enjoy the graphic depiction of violence, although there is less depiction of actual acts of violence than I expected, but then I had very low expectations. There is a lot of threatening at gun point, a vivid portrayal of a woman after being violently gang raped (thank God Clint, also the director, didn't make us watch that too) and a few other cruel scenes which certainly make this a movie I could not recommend to many. And, by the way, the profanity is abundant and creative. I never knew there were so many racist slurs; and Walk Kowalski (Clint's character) is in no way prejudiced. He insults everyone regardless of race, creed or gender. But in the context of Gran Torino, profanity serves a purpose: it is the language of peers. Mutual respect is established by taking insult and dishing it back out again. Not a pleasant world to be sure, but a real world that at various points in my life I have lived in or close to.

You see, I am really just a wannabe pacifist, and most street violence does not repulse me. (This is not a boast, but a confession of my own wounded conscience.) Repentance has been a long and bumpy road for me. It has been easy for me to accept that Christ did not resist evil but rather conquered evil by allowing himself to be swallowed by it – trampling down death by death. What's been hard to accept is that the pathway of my salvation, the salvation that Christ secured for me through his life, death and resurrection, also passes through a cross. I too will have to trample down death by death. I don't like dying: fighting is much easier. It's so much more comforting to imagine myself the hero, fighting fire with fire.

My father, a career submariner, often used to say to me, "a coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but once" (a paraphrase from Shakespeare: Julius Caesar II, ii, 33-34). Until I was ten I was somewhat of a wimp – today I would call it pure of heart, but my dad called it something else that I won't repeat. But when I began living in foster homes and other institutions, I made a choice (I actually remember doing this) not to keep dying again and again. I learned to speak the language of violence.

Fighting was a means of communication more than anything else, a way of defining boundaries, and how you became accepted in the group. Of course some people like to hurt others. I never did. I just didn't like being hurt. In Gran Torino I completely understand the thousand deaths Thao was experiencing and why he reluctantly obeyed the gang and tried to steal Walt's Gran Torino [a perfectly preserved 1972 Ford muscle car] and almost got his head blown off in the botched attempt. I've known the deaths that make a peaceful boy a fighter.

Father Janovich is the second most important reason why I hope this film wins an academy award or some other such recognition. This is the first movie I have seen in years that portrays a pious clergyman as a sane force for good. Fr. Janovich will not leave Walt alone after his wife's death. He keeps his promise to Walt's wife and patiently and repeatedly (like a real pastor of a flock) endures Walt's insults to gain his trust and eventually respect. When Fr. Janovich knows that violence is imminent, he does what he can to stop it – including placing his own life at risk. If for no other reason than this realistic and noble portrayal of a clergyman, I hope this film gets wide recognition. But as I said, this is the second reason.

Throughout the film, Walt is haunted by his memories of his participation in war-time violence during the Korean War. There are no gory flashbacks, just occasional references: his Silver Star for bravery, snippets of conversation with the priest: "What haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do."

As the movie progresses, Walt has occasion to mention specific actions – "We shot men, stabbed them with bayonets, chopped up 17-year-olds with shovels." He also mentions that they used Koreans as "sandbags" (human shields). But it is near the end of the movie, after he has decided how he will end the gang violence that Thao and his sister cannot escape, when Walt finally goes to confession. His confession mentions nothing of his war experience, and Fr. Janovich is clearly disappointed and asks, "Is that all?" Walt focuses on his failure as a parent and ends it there; he is saving his most important confession for a different "priest."

Young Thao wants to take vengeance on the gang for raping his sister. He has finally "become a man" and is ready to speak the language of violence. Thao will not listen to Walt, who tries to calm him down. Thao knows only his own anger and frustration. In their final conversation we find out why Walt received the Silver Star for bravery: he was the only one to return from a mission to destroy an enemy machine gun nest. Then, locking Thao in the basement so that he cannot foolishly take vengeance (which the gang is expecting and lying in wait for) and looking him straight in the face, Walt confesses: on that mission he had shot in the face "some poor little gook, just like you" who "just wanted to give up." Thao becomes the priest, the icon of Christ, the icon of the boy whom Walt had murdered in the war. Walt makes his confession.

Then Walt goes to "finish things." I almost didn't want to watch the end. I expected a self righteous blood bath. There was blood all right; not the blood of self righteous vindication, but the blood of redemptive sacrifice. Walt ends the violence by dying, not killing. The camera shot of Walt lying dead on the ground, carrying no weapons and with his arms out stretched out in the form a cross, leaves no doubt in anyone's mind how his death is meant to be understood. Walt's redemption is to die in place of Thao as a penance for his own sins. Perhaps foul-mouthed, racist old war heroes can be saved too.

I can only recommend Gran Torino to those who are already familiar with the language of violence and will not be offended by the racist profanity of an old man and of street gang bravado. It is not a movie for gentle souls or the pure of heart; but like Walt, "I'm soiled," so the graphic depiction of violence did not bother me as much as it clearly communicated to me the pain of the characters. And even the abundant profanity was to me at points witty in its innovative use of insult-I giggled several times. My wife would not get it at all, and I'm glad she wouldn't. Gran Torino is about a violent man in a violent world, a world like the one that crucified Jesus, a world like the one just across the tracks or on the other side of town. It is a movie that speaks the language of violence and points to the possibility of redemption, that the cross, rather that killing, is the only end to violence.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of your posts this week, Fr. Michael. They have been "washing" words.

There's just one thing...I'm sorry, but I just can't see you as anything but gentle and kind no matter how much you try to convince us otherwise. :)


Moosh said...

Father, I loved this movie. I hated the violence, and I especially was disturbed by the scene where everyone is waiting anxiously for Sue to come home, but I still loved the movie as a whole. I too was struck by how the priest wasn't a caricature.

What stood out the most for me was the contrast between Walt's family and Thao's family. Neither were perfect but it seemed that in Thao's family, there was a connection and richness of life, signified by the rituals and all that sharing of food ... The shots of Walt's children and grandchildren emphasized the disconnection between individuals. I was moved by the scene where the elder "reads" Walt; Walt's own family couldn't "see" him at all. Walt may have reached out and helped Thao become a man, but Thao's family reached into Walt's hellish isolation, too.

I also got teary when Walt started to say "Hail Mary ... " softly, as he slowly reached for his lighter. For all his scoffing of "superstitiousness," in the end, he paid his respects, so to speak.

Anonymous said...; You saved my day again.