There’s room for debate about this movie. Just how seriously are we meant to take what must seem to Christians to be a strongly Christ-oriented story? Surely Clint Eastwood does not intend what some of us see in the literally cruciform climax? (Yet I’ve never forgotten a scene from The Unforgiven. Here’s the relevant portion from my book The Bible and the New York Times:
“Clint Eastwood’s young sidekick has just participated in the shooting and the painful and prolonged death of another man. He is shaken, but he reassures himself by saying, ‘He had it coming.’ He receives no comfort from Clint, who utters this deathless line, ‘We all have it coming.'”
Gran Torino is certainly one of the best, most unsparing expositions in film of the tensions in our multiculti American society. The Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski, uses every epithet in the book and more besides—sometimes hilariously, it must be said—to insult his neighbors. These scurrilous outbursts are offset by the loving attention given by the director Eastwood and his screenwriter, Nick Schenk, to the Hmong people and their customs. Admirable also is the razor-sharp view of the plight of young males in our urban subculture—black, Latino, Asian.
Being no great fan of the early, Dirty Harry Eastwood, I do not look in this film for echoes of his earlier performances, but concentrate on this one, which seems to me a masterpiece. Walt Kowalski, a foul-mouthed racist alumnus of the Detroit auto factories, is no Archie Bunker, but far more subtly observed and portrayed. Perhaps the key lines are the ones in which he admits that he has been a failure as a father to his own sons, and that he has more in common with the “gooks” next door than he does with his own family. In many ways the movie is a meditation on fatherhood. There are explicit references to the failure of the Hmong men in the extended family next door. The movie then shows how Walt tries to learn how to be a father figure to his teenage Hmong neighbor. His attempts are off-key, awkward, sometimes painful, but he is teaching—one of the most valuable forms that love can take.
Redemption is perhaps an overworked theme in American films, and no doubt there is a formulaic quality to this one. Yet the nature of the climax is so unexpected, and the symbolism so striking, and the benediction so fitting, that it transcends formula, becoming a true illustration of the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5, 5:6).