Clint Eastwood’s 2008 project Gran Torino has recently been released on DVD, and what a delight it is. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired auto worker whose wife has just passed away.
I was unable to catch the film in theaters, despite my desire to do so. Based in Michigan, Gran Torino was filmed places like Royal Oak, Warren, Grosse Pointe, and Highland Park. As the production notes state, “Though the screenplay was initially set in Minneapolis, Eastwood felt Walt’s past as a 50-year auto worker would resonate most as a resident of ‘Motor City’—Detroit, Michigan.”
It was a wise decision. Everything about Gran Torino rings true, from Walt’s disdain for his priest, whom he calls “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin,” to his way of speaking (he “slings racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs”), to the local ambiance (including a “ghetto clothesline” in the basement of Walt’s Hmong neighbors). The film’s action revolves around the title character, a 1972 Gran Torino, Walt’s prized possession, a car that he had a hand in building himself. Walt’s bigotry extends most virulently to his neighbors, the Lor family, Hmong immigrants from southeast Asia. One of the boys in the family, Thao, is eventually pressured into joining a neighborhood gang. His first assignment is to steal Walt’s car.
When he is unsuccessful in doing so (Walt sleeps with one eye open), and Thao refuses to continue in the gang’s initiation, things turn especially dangerous. The gang threatens Thao, but his family convinces him to work for Walt in order to show his repentance. The relationship between Walt and Thao is the most dynamic aspect of the film, and the basis of their relationship is the reconciling value of work. Walt puts Thao to work around the neighborhood, and in so doing creates discipline, inculcates valuable skills, and teaches him how to be a responsible adult. As Walt says to Thao, “Take these three items: some WD-40, a vice grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone.”
Despite the verbal jabs and ethnic epithets, Walt treats Thao with dignity and respect. He recognizes Thao’s dignity by treating him as a moral agent responsible for his actions. He respects Thao by challenging him to better himself through responsible labor and character development. As the film’s production notes read, “Walt’s ultimate goal becomes to empower the aimless kid to get a job and stay out of trouble so he can have a future.”
At one point Thao’s sister Sue observes to Walt that “Thao washing your car after he tried to steal it” is “ironic.” To this Walt responds caustically, “And if he misses a spot, he has to do it all over again.” But Thao’s acts of recompense aren’t simply ironic in some literary sense. They are, in fact, deeply reflective of the importance of concrete manifestations of regret and the reconciling power of work.
As Rev. John Nunes, president of Lutheran World Relief, has said, “Work and labor ennoble people.” The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that work, which God graciously allows to provide sustenance, or “our daily bread,” ought to be understood as “God’s order of grace.”
There is a great deal to be gleaned from Gran Torino, and much more could and should be said about this movie. But one of the lasting lessons we should take away from this remarkable film is the ability for work and labor to provide purpose and meaning for what otherwise seems to be a pointless existence.
In a word, Gran Torino works.