Search This Blog

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino, and the Atonement

As one who grew up in the 1970's, I have always been a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Who can forget his machismo and "take no prisoners" style, especially in the Dirty Harry movies? Last night my wife and I watched his latest film, Gran Torino. I expected a typical Clint Eastwood movie where he teaches the "bad guys" a lesson. There is a lot of that in the movie but what really captivated me was the theological motif of atonement presented at the end. That was totally unexpected.

Below is the trailer:
Gran Torino (Trailer)

Mikhail | MySpace Video

Here is the plot in a nutshell (from Wikipedia)

Walt Kowalski [played by Clint Eastwood], a retired Polish American Ford factory worker and Korean War veteran, has recently been widowed, which is made further difficult by the generational clash between him and his sons' families, who have little to do with Walt and prefer it that way. His neighborhood in Detroit, formerly populated by working-class white families, is now dominated by poor Asian immigrants; gang violence is commonplace.

Much of Walt's views of life are shaped by his time in the Korean War. On strained relations with his grown sons and not wanting the advice of the priest of his wife's church, Walt is a gruff man who has few friends. As such, he lives a solitary life with his pet Labrador retriever Daisy in the same house he has lived in for years, which is located in a working class Highland Park, Michigan neighborhood. Recently, the neighborhood has gone through changes where it is now racially mixed. The Lor family, of ethnic Hmong descent, move into the house next door to Walt's, the family which includes two teenagers, streetwise Sue and shy Thao. Initially Walt wants nothing to do with his new neighbors. Slowly, Walt does get involved in Sue and Thao's lives, despite Thao having once tried to steal Walt's beloved 1972 Gran Torino. That attempted theft was a Hmong gang initiation ritual, a gang to which Thao does not want to belong. Walt sees that Sue and Thao will never be able to live in peace as long as that gang exists. As his teen-aged neighbors' unofficial protector, Walt has to figure out how best to restore his sense of right in the neighborhood.

To atone for his attempted theft, Thao works for Walt, who has him carry out odd jobs around the neighborhood. Walt helps Thao to find a job. However, Walt is troubled by occasional coughing fits, and soon begins coughing up blood. He goes for a medical checkup and receives results implying that his condition is serious and he is suffering from lung cancer.

Thao is mugged by his cousin's gang on the way home from work. In his fury, Walt confronts one of the gang members with a gun, threatening to kill him if the gang does not leave Thao alone. The gang retaliates with a drive-by shooting on the Vang Lor home, and by beating and raping Sue.

The next day, Thao visits Walt, demanding Walt's help in seeking vengeance upon the gang. Walt asks Thao to return later in the day. In the meantime, Walt makes final preparations. Walt returns home and meets with Thao, but tricks Thao and locks him in the basement. That night Walt drives to the home of the gang members who confront him with their weapons drawn on the front lawn. Walt talks loudly drawing the attention of the neighbors and places a cigarette in his mouth

Here is a video clip of what happens next:

Gran Torino Ending

Chan | MySpace Video

I thought about the idea of the atonement being presented by Eastwood in this movie as maybe something of the Martyr theory but then I came across a blog written by Glen Scorgie, Professor of Theology at Bethel Seminary,who sees three of the most popular theories of atonement in the film.

Scorgie writes:
It is fascinating to see how all three theories of the atonement are depicted in Gran Torino. Walt Kowalski essentially tricks the violent gang members into killing him in public, surrounded by many witnesses to his murder. At the end we see them being hauled off in handcuffs by the police, a sure sign that they have been rendered permanently powerless and no longer able to create fear in others. That’s the classic theory!

Walt wills his precious Gran Torino to the young Hmong fellow next door, and as the movie concludes we see him driving the car along the Lake Michigan waterfront, with Walt’s dog beside him. He is now an emboldened and empowered young man, able to differentiate himself from the bad influences of the neighborhood and inspired to live a life that will make the one who died for him proud. That’s the moral influence theory!

Why did Kowalski do it? Well, the reasons were complex no doubt, but through the course of the movie we come to discover that he is a Korean veteran still tortured by the memories of the enemy killing he did, and especially his unjustifiable murder of a helpless young Asian at chilling close quarters. This memory haunts him every day. In the end he protects the similar-in-appearance Hmong immigrants next door to him as an act of compensation or penance. You see, there is no evading the karma-like dictates of the human conscience. Sin cannot be blown off—it must be atoned by a commensurate sacrifice. This is the unyielding law of the moral universe. In the end a guilt-stricken and bitter man, bearing the weight of his part in Korean atrocities, makes his peace by giving his life for these same people.

There were some insightful comments on Scorgie's blog as well.

Dave Harvey: In addition to the strong theme of repentance, there’s also a skillful comparison of the results obtained by violence vs. love. When Walt goes to the gang members’ house to abuse and threaten the boy he finds there, the result is more violence - evidenced by the drive-by shooting and Sue’s injuries and degradation. However, when Walt puts down his weapons and offers himself has a sacrifice, the result is freedom from oppression for the whole Hmong community. Thus we see that violence only begets more violence, while love truly transforms.
This would be illustrative of the Girardian view of the Atonement. This view named after René Girard (1923- )bascially sees Jesus as allowing himself to be sacrificed in a violent way in order to show man the futility of violence.
Kate Smoot: I actually watched “Grand Torino” last night with my husband. I also was surprised and moved by the ending, and happy to see a positive popular depiction of Christianity! However, neither I nor John felt like Eastwood’s death was enough. While it did free the neighborhood (at least for a while) from the gang members’ violence, it didn’t undo what they had already done - especially to Sue.

This is I guess where the PST of the atonement would come in. Eastwood's death did not undo the damage done to those impacted by sin. It was in no way a means whereby God would be propitiated and man would be forgiven.

It was a fascinating movie and I highly recommend it.


  1. Ken, the more I think of it the more you should write a modern day definitive refutation of all atonement theories. THAT would put you on the map. It needs to be done. The last atheist attempt to do this was by Michael Martin in "The Case Against Christianity." But it was only eleven pages long, and he still didn't cover all of them or their nuances.

  2. John,

    Thanks. I would love to do that. I haven't read Martin's book but I need to. Believe it or not I haven't read any of the "new atheist's" books. I have Dawkin's God Delusion but have never finished it. While all of these have their place, I think a critique from a former insider and a theologian to boot would be more effective. I just need time or a generous benefactor.

  3. Let me chime in on you writing a book, Ken. A book by a former serious insider is the ticket.

    I haven't seen the movie above yet, and I see how the atonement ideas could be drawn from it, but what strikes me as most likely is that they just wanted the Eastwood character to do this to atone for what he did in the war.

    I know from a personal experience that thoughts of "balancing the scales"-punishing yourself because you've done wrong and want to balance things out is a very strong feeling.

  4. Ken,

    You should definitely write a book. But get ready for some expert backlash. You will not get answers from amateurs on a blog. You will have to take on the heavy weights.

  5. Ken,

    Wonderful post on a great movie! Thanks!