Critics are divided on whether this 2008 film was a sunset masterpiece by the iconic Clint Eastwood or a train wreck of a script compounded by melodramatic acting. And Christians are somewhat divided as well: do the themes of the film and the Christ-figure nod sufficiently justify the behavior of the bigoted main character? A commenter on one review thinks so: “By far this is one of the most compelling films I have ever seen in my life. The story of redemption and sacrifice outweighed the language or racial slurs.”
I’m glad there are folks who are able to refrain from judging this film on the basis of counting dirty words and appreciate the story for the transformation of a heard-hearted character, but I do wonder if “balance” is the right approach when we’re talking about potentially objectionable content in a film. Are filmmakers allowed a certain number of f-bombs as long as the Jesus allusion is clear in the end? I think a better question is whether displays of brokenness in art are true—true to the character, true to the world of the film and true to the cosmic devastation of evil.
And brokenness is certainly a theme in Gran Torino. Not only does Walt Kowalski experience strained relationships with his (deceased wife’s) church and his own family, but he also displays an intense hatred for his Asian immigrant neighbors, spewing racial epithets like a Pabst can someone shook before opening. The interpersonal racism he displays is all tied up with guilt over his actions in the Korean War and, ultimately, with a self-hatred he’ll need to overcome before he’s capable of any kind of authentic love.
One thing most critics could agree on, regardless of their stance on the artistry of the film, is that plopping Eastwood’s signature tough guy down in the middle of a contemporary ethnic neighborhood raises important questions about how we interact with those who are different from ourselves. How can we move beyond tolerance to mutual help, appreciation and even sacrificial friendship? Those are things worth thinking on—true, noble, right, admirable things—even if we need to wade through images of humanity’s brokenness to get there.