Sunday, August 16, 2009


(or, as described by some: “Dirty Harry, the Golden Years”)

I loved this movie! Though I’m not a Clint Eastwood fan, I had wanted to see the movie since it first came out (but never got around to it). The previews showed Clint Eastwood as an angry, hate-filled racist bigot – an old white guy, the only one of his race left in a neighborhood turned brown.

A few weeks ago while we were visiting our son and his family, he asked us if we’d ever seen the movie. I told him I’d like to and mentioned what little I knew of it. He said, “You’ll be surprised – it’s not what you’d think.” So we watched it. I was surprised – pleasantly! So Uni and I went out, purchased it and watched it again and intend to watch it a few more times.

Two warnings are in order here:
 First, if profanity and crude talk offends you or would keep you from paying attention to the movement of the story, don’t bother to watch it.
 Second, if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to, don’t read further. I’m going to give away the story and ruin the ending for you.

A brief synopsis:
Clint Eastwood plays a really unlikable guy, Walt Kowalski, a widower and retired Ford autoworker living in a Detroit suburb. He hates his kids. (I know this guy! I think I talked to him at my 50 year high school class reunion.) He is apparently, the last white man in a neighborhood that has seen better days and is now populated by Hmong immigrants (he calls them Ha-mong, as well as other things). It is clear that he hates these people, along with those of other races. His speech is peppered with racial (as well as other) epithets. He is the proud owner of a 1972 Ford Gran Torino in mint condition, which he guards carefully. He owns an M-1 rifle which he claims to have used in the war, as well as what looks like a government issue Colt 45 automatic pistol.

When his deceased wife’s youthful priest attempts to get him to come to confession, Walt spurns him with salty language. He feels no need for confession.

Walt, however, soon finds himself entangled in the lives of his Hmong neighbors. He rescues Sue, the teenage daughter from the advances of some black thugs and Thao, the teenage son (whom he names Toad) from a gang of Hmong thugs. It isn’t long before they befriend him.

Next Thao attempts to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite into the gang. As an act of contrition, Thao is assigned to do work for Walt. This leads to a mentoring relationship. Through all this we find that much of Walt’s meanness is simply a persona, a façade to cover up deep-seated feelings.

The movie then seems to take on the character of some of Clint’s old Westerns and Dirty Harry movies. There is a buildup toward what we all know is a showdown with the bad guys – the Hmong gang who have been harassing Sue and Thao’s family. Walt makes preparations for what he (as well as we) seems to perceive as the possibility of his death: he gets a haircut, a professional shave and a new suit. He finally goes to confession.

The twist is that Walt heads for this showdown unarmed. This is very un-Clintish! Rather than a two-way shootout, Walt eggs the gangsters into blowing him away in front of witnesses. The bad guys are then hauled off to jail, the family is safe and the movie ends happily ever after, with Thao inheriting the Gran Torino and driving off into the sunset with Walt’s dog Daisy.

Good movie – great ending! Good illustration of the crossing of racial and ethnic lines. Good illustration of the mentoring process – kind of like one of my other favorite movies: “Finding Forrester.”

But there seem to be some heavier undercurrents, theological and otherwise. Walt is dying. He coughs up blood, apparently experiencing the effects of his hard drinking and hard smoking.

Walt is also carrying around a load of guilt. He has killed men in battle – 13, as I recall. But those killings don’t bother him. It’s just one – a young North Korean soldier who was trying to surrender. When Walt finally goes to confession, he confesses some seemingly minor sins, but makes no mention of this one young man who has been haunting him.

When I saw Walt getting blown away by the bad guys, my first thought was that here was what has been known as a “Christ-figure,” one who gives himself for his new friends. John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this -- that one should lay down his life for his friends.” This element is certainly present. Though Walt was definitely not Christlike in his demeanor, when the chips were down he did what Jesus did.

But was Walt also trying to make atonement for his own sin? That one that he did not confess? It seems that way. He did not confess to the priest the one great sin that had been haunting him for over 50 years. He did not take advantage of the forgiveness that was offered him in Christ.

There are, of course, many other possible motives. He was dying anyway; this could give him an instant death. He wanted to get these gangsters; he wanted to get even with his own kids. We’ll never know and after all, this is fiction. Clint Eastwood probably had all of them in his mind and none of them in his plot.

I like to think that it is my first interpretation that is correct.

Clint Eastwood as a Christ-figure! Who would have thought it?

Bill Ball


Sherry said...

Patrick and I discussed this movie a lot. Like someone else you mentioned he found Eastwood's character unbelievable. Not becuz he was a racist but becuz he talked that way directly to the people he despised. I know people who talk like that behind others' backs but I don't know that they talk that way to them. Then again I try not to hang around those racist people and I've never seen them with other ethnicities so who knows?

He even talked that way with his white friends!

I personally felt that this was the first time Walt let himself KNOW anyone different and may have been the first time he let himself LOVE anyone other than his wife. I believe his relationship with everyone, including his kids, was tainted by both his hatred of those who were DIFFERENT and by his act of brutality.

While he didn't confess the act of brutality, he did confess his poor relationship with his kids.

Anyway, I believe his sacrifice was done out of both love and contrition, and was intended to both save those he loved and punish those who hurt them. He took one young man's life. He gave another young man his.

kinda rambling - it's early
love ya Dad ~ Sherry

Bill Ball said...

Thanks Sherry. Those were great insights. I'm going to have to watch it again. Love ya', Dad