‘Gran Torino’ is a story of redemption found in relationships

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Typically, I avoid Clint Eastwood movies. The violence disturbs me, but I was advised to see “Gran Torino” and to report my thoughts and feelings about the film. So I did. And, I was amazed at what I saw.

The first surprise was there was a nearly full house on a Wednesday afternoon. Gray and graying heads bobbed in conversation, since we all arrived many minutes before show time. I caught bits and pieces of the varied dialogue, mostly about golf, taxes, and maladies—speech that seniors find interesting and informative.

Seated next to me was a young couple that had brought grandma and grandpa out to the movies. I watched in admiration, as they made certain their grandparents were comfortably seated side by side and had whatever they needed to make it an enjoyable afternoon.

I commented they were the grand prizewinners, since they were the youngest ones in the audience. Laughing, the grandson noted he loved being at a senior citizen matinee because the elders had not lost a sense of charity and courtesy. No matter how loud the previewing conversations might be, they become silent when the movie started.

He wondered aloud about today’s young people whose self-absorption appears to abound and whose connection with a world outside of themselves is slight to the point of absent, in some cases. He wondered where respect had gone.

His wonderment lingered in the atmosphere as the theater darkened and the first loud blasts announcing coming attractions filled the room. As he had noted, the quiet was remarkable. Only cinematic sounds would be heard. Only vocal reactions to the unfolding story would be audible.

“Gran Torino” began with an inevitability all knew and faced. The opening scene displayed the funeral of Dorothy Kowalski, devoted wife of Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski. His anguish, anger, annoyance and absolute sense of loss were immediately evident. Demonstrated in ways abhorrent to his family, Walt knew the one hope in his lifetime of hurts, the light in his ongoing darkness had been extinguished. He felt the pain but could only express it by rejecting others. The softness in his life had died. Only hardness remained.

Without his wife, his coping mechanisms were reduced to grumpy, tough-talking interactions that kept relationships at bay. A crusty curmudgeon, Walt lashed out at all visible and invisible intrusions, including the intrusiveness of his own family, two sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren with whom he had long since ceased to connect.

Even the persistence of the young priest, Dorothy’s friend and confessor, was summarily dismissed as the vapid efforts of a youthful celibate whose knowledge of life and death was both limited and lacking wisdom.

Other than his love for his dog, the only relationship—if it could be so labeled—Walt was able to maintain was with his prize possession, a 1972 Gran Torino he kept in mint condition. He caressed the vehicle lovingly, washing and waxing it. He took care to see it was kept under cover, safe from the dust and debris of life, even if he could not find an identical space for himself. As the young priest pointed out to him, Walt knew more about death than he did about living.

As is true for all of us, Walt discovered the space between life and death is not nearly as wide as we might think, or even desire. Death and life are entwined. Neither can be accepted without the other. Neither can be denied without the other. As Walt grunts his way through conversations with those he cannot accept as equal, he begins to learn their groans and grunts are not so different from his. Suffering hones their happiness. So can it sharpen his, if he will allow it.

Permission is not something Walt gave easily or quickly. It came via a gradually developing relationship with his next-door neighbor, Thao, a young Hmong teenager who is being pressured to join a local gang.

As an initiation rite into the gang, Thao tries to steal Walt’s Gran Torino, but fails at the attempt. His failure effected an unexpected success. Having lost the family’s honor with the attempted thievery, Thao is forced to work for Walt to regain it. In the process, both are saved from their demons.

Walt’s lingering hurts match Thao’s. Both are plagued by things they weren’t ordered to do. Both begin to examine what it is they are good at and they start to act upon those talents together. Self-absorption, a strangely shared gift, is shattered by selfless activity.

Thao repairs neighborhood houses. Walt is draw into the reparation by association. Teacher becomes learner while learner becomes teacher. Laughter begins to crinkle Walt’s eyes, replacing the wrinkles of pain and remembered horrors.

Walt’s assistance of his Hmong neighbors makes him the recipient of their unendingly generous gratitude. Slowly but surely, the hard shell of prejudice that had “protected” both parties cracks. Isolation is invaded by love. Rejection is dismissed by relationship. All began to see beyond the surface differences to reveal the humanity they held in common. Redemption happens.

It is a redemption that transforms everyone in its wake. Thao’s grandmother who was as biased and unforgiving as Walt sees her neighbor with new eyes when he comes to their aid, protecting them against the roving Hmong gang that terrorized the neighborhood.

The ignorance and terror that pervaded the neighborhood, creating an opaque film that blinded people both to reality and to responsibility, was losing its death-dealing grip. Blindness was giving way to sight. Sight effected salvation.

Walt commanded Thao to step back and stay calm. He gave himself the same command. Walt stepped back into time and confessed his sins against relationship and justice. He sought absolution from the same young priest he had summarily dismissed, received it, and stayed calmly present to the newness of life he had received.

Ultimately and essentially, Walt stood strong in his skin. He learned how to be a life-giver. He knew, accepted and acted upon that knowledge. Walt returned to others the gift of redemption he had received in relationship so all might be similarly saved. He gave his life so that others might live.

Isn’t that the mission, vision and challenge given to all of us?