Monday, April 13, 2009

Gran Torino: A spiritual review

Walt Kowalski: [to Father Janovich] The thing that haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do.

Clint Eastwood plays Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (directed by Eastwood, 2008). Kowalski is a white old man (widowed at the beginning of the film) and lives in his property alone (away from his children--the lone ranger)--surrounded by immigrants (Koreans in this case). A Korean boy, under the influence of a neighbourhood gang, tries to steal Kowalski's 1972 Gran Torino. The rest of the film is about Kowalski's developing relationship with that boy and his family and how the Korean boy--an immigrant--becomes the heir to his prized possession.

After seeing Eastwood in so many Westerns, this movie too gives the feel of a western--as if the lawlessness of the frontiers has invaded the heart of America (this seems more believable given the regular reports of mass killings/shootings in America). And once again, the white man has to protect the 'right' weak against the 'immoral/criminal' strong. Also, at another level, the film shows the darkness that haunts America because of its wars on humanity--the Koreans and Viets coming to America with their war-ravaged souls (add to the list the Iraqis and Afghans and Pakistanis, among others, and remember, in the most recent shooting incident in Bennington, the victims of the unemployed Korean shooter were Iraqis and Pakistanis).

Kowalski's soul is riven with guilt because of his experience in the war. "The thing that haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn't ordered to do", he tells the father who is bent on making Kowalski confess. That confession, his wife's last wish, is Kowalski's dramatic need--his redemption. This spiritual aspect of the film makes the film rich in meaning.

Now why is this confession important? To understand this, one must understand the Christian concept of mortal sin. I am not an authority on this but let me quote author Karen Armstrong (Holy War): "A mortal sin is a major sin like murder or adultery. As its name suggests, it causes the death of grace in the soul, because it severs a Christian from God absolutely and can only be forgiven by means of the sacrament of penance, when a catholic confesses it to a priest and receives absolution from God. If a person dies with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul, he or she will go to hell for all eternity. To qualify as mortal sin, the sin must be a grave one and must be committed knowingly and deliberately and with a clear knowledge of the spiritual consequences."

That's why, before the denouement in Act 3, Kowalski's confesses and that foreshadows his death: because, if a person dies with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul, he or she will go to hell for all eternity. That turn around, from godlessness to a spiritual farewell, completes the character arc of Kowalski.

It is a terrific film and the screenplay by Nick Schenk is fantastic--keeps the story on an even keel. The young boy's (Bee Vang as Thao Vang Lor) character also fulfills his dramatic need by becoming aggressive (from a passive state in the beginning) and becoming an heir to Kowalski's Gran Torino. In a sense, Thao (the good immigrant) becomes the new inheritor of a multi-racial America (goes well with the Obama Presidency)-- acknowledging that the Asians are the most well-to-do group in the USA today. The other white characters shown in the film (family members, the white boy friend of Thao's sister) have either been shown as selfish or effeminate. However, to balance it out, there are other white characters in the film (the construction manager, the men in the bar, the barber)--all working class--who still have some machismo left in them.

The story structure is marvelous (beginning and ending with funerals) and all the three acts are well written. Eastwood's execution of the story is sound and masterful and thankfully avoids being overly sentimental.

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