Gran Torino, Christology, and the American Sensibility for Sacrifice

Warning – Spoiler Alert!

Gran Torino is the latest of many great films to be directed by the acclaimed Clint Eastwood. Yet, though the directing is marvelous, it is Eastwood’s acting that has earned him praise for this film.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a curmudgeonly and racist Korean War veteran. Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood that has long lost the middle class, white center he knew when he moved in and raised his family some forty years ago.

As the middle class white folks fled to the suburbs (including Walt’s own children), lower income and ethnically diverse families replaced them. Walt’s own street has seen a major influx of Hmong families. With the changing economic and ethnic diversity has come an escalation in gang activity.

Walt finds himself in the middle of this gang activity when Thao (the high school boy living next store) is persuaded by a local Hmong gang to break into Walt’s garage and steal his beloved 1972 Gran Torino as Thao’s initiation into the gang. However, Thao is not all that enthused about joining the gang. He simply sees few other options for protection from other gangs (like Latino and black), or if he refuses, from the Hmong gang itself.

Walt foils the attempted theft, revealing the fearlessness and rage that exist within him. From this incident two things occur:

  • Thao gets himself in deep trouble with the gang as he avoids a second initiation attempt.
  • Walt is drawn into the Hmong family as Thao’s mother and sister force him to start working for Walt. This way, he can pay for the dishonor his actions have produced.

At first, Walt’s racism keeps him from wanting anything to do with Thao and his family. But soon, shown with great beauty, Walt begins to change as his relationship with Thao and his family deepens.

Walt spends the rest of the movie standing up to the gangs in his neighborhood, both sick of their tyranny and seeking to protect Thao. However, Walt gradually realizes there is no hope for Thao as long as the gangs are around. So, Walt acts to remove them.

He initially tries to use violence against them, returning to his war training to threaten the gangbangers. But this only leads to retaliation and the rape and severe beating of Thao’s sister.

Finally, at the end Walt takes another approach, going to the residences of the gang members and confronting them in a manner that calls the attention of the neighbors. Having already threatened them, the gang members are jumpy; when Walt knowingly reaches into his coat, the gang opens fire.

Walt lies on the sidewalk, his arms outstretched, making it impossible to miss the Christological symbolism of Walt’s action. He has sacrificed himself so that others (in this case, Thao and his sister) could live. The selfish and hateful man does the ultimate act of love and solidarity by sacrificing his own life so that others could live.

Gran Torino is a beautiful movie that is open to much thought and reflection about responsibility, community, and the transformation provided by relationships.

But something else in the film captured my imagination, something that says much about the American consciousness for such self-sacrifice and leads to deep theological reflection.

Long before Walt enters his plot to sacrifice himself, the viewers discover that Walt is significantly ill. He has been coughing up blood. One scene in the doctor’s office unequivocally shows that Walt is dying. His days are clearly numbered.

With this movie as one of many examples, it appears the American consciousness can only take a self-sacrificial act when the person giving up their life is close to dying.  In American cinema, it is rare to see someone who is in the fullness of life give up his or her own life for others (with the possible exception of war films, but these films have other political fish to fry).

It appears that the American consciousness demands the sacrificial agent be either close to death, or so corrupt that their death is a great final act of redemption so others can live (like Javere in Les Miserables).

Rarely do we have a case where the one who is relatively innocent and in the fullness of life gives up his or her existence for others. It is simply too stomach-turning, too tragic, too masochistic. And maybe it truly is.

I imagine that most people in the world struggle with the church’s assertions about Christ, both because Jesus chooses to die as a sacrifice and because he is innocent (sinless, even).

What does this all say about our Christology? And what does it demand of our proclamation?

At the very least, it demands that we give attention to the tragic realities in our world, in ourselves, and in the gospel itself. Americans like to have their tragedy with silver linings, but often in life, such linings are not there.

More importantly, this points us toward a need to further develop our understandings of resurrection. We need a Christology that necessitates the resurrection and is connected to the cross for our salvation.

In some ways, Eastwood is right. Without resurrection, the heroic sacrifice must be laced with impending death. If sacrifice is the end,  we need the sacrificial agent to be dying. For we know that despite actions allowing others to live in the present, they too will inevitably have to die.

But there is something qualitatively different about a narrative of one dying so that others can live in a new community beyond death. There is something distinct about another dying not only to give life, but to overcome death itself. It is quite different to have the one who takes on death not only as a sacrifice, but as an act that promises freedom from death itself.

As Gran Torino ends, it is clear that Walt’s act has given Thao life. Still, my soul yearns for more.

I’m moved by the sacrifice, but my broken humanity yearns for resurrection.

I want Thao to be free to live, but to live again in communion with the one who sacrificed himself for Thao. This sacrifice was the greatest act of love, and love yearns for continued communion beyond all separation.

I desire for the love that moves Walt to sacrifice himself to have its fulfillment beyond the reach of death.

I want the act of sacrifice to stretch so deep that it overcomes death and all the forces that keep us apart.

I yearn for resurrection.

What do you think about this article, or the movie Gran Torino?  Share your thoughts and join the conversation on Andy’s article here.