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Jun 2020

The Good Mechanic

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7:15, 24-25

The hardest thing a man has to live with isn’t what he was ordered to do. It’s the things he wasn’t ordered to do. – Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino

One of the things that I love about a Clint Eastwood movie is that he never gives the audience any real answers. His films ultimately leave me somewhat unsettled, wrestling with the scenarios and the decisions that his characters make throughout the film. This is how I felt after watching Million Dollar Baby, and it was how I felt after recently re-watching watching Gran Torino during my latest hospital stint.

On one hand, it was nice to see someone bravely, fearlessly stand up to injustice. On the other hand, the filmmakers didn’t pull any punches about the consequences of such actions. On one hand, it was nice to see Walt finally open up, live freely, and be vulnerable. On the other hand, the filmmakers didn’t reward him or the Hmong family for their efforts; instead, they all suffered for it. On one hand, I liked the redemptive theme of self-sacrifice, rather than killing others. On the other hand, the filmmakers didn’t give Walt a very “happy” ending. It is as if the filmmaker doesn’t really want to give us a slanted message. That’s why I love Eastwood movies. Ultimately, we have to decide what we think about all these things. On the other hand, without a biblical worldview in which to base your decision on, these types of movies are also extremely dangerous.

I liked the metaphor that Eastwood presented in this movie to describe his character, Walt Kowalski. He is made out to be a fixer, someone who “finishes things.” In his garage, his Gran Torino testifies to the many years he spent working on Ford’s assembly line making sure every car that came his way was put together as it should be. On shelves, in cabinets, and on hooks along his walls, his collection of tools stands by ready to make sure every object around him continues to work as it was designed. The problem that Walt encounters in this movie is that fixing human trouble is just not something he comprehends. That is until he unexpectedly finds himself doing just that.

At the beginning of the film, all Walt seems to be able to see in others are their flaws. His children are spoiled, his neighbors are lazy, the priest is naïve, and pretty much any man other than himself is not up to snuff; but as Walt gets to know Thao, Sue, and their family (his neighbors), it is as if he begins to see those around him in the same way he does his Gran Torino, as people of value with the potential to shine just as brightly as his prized automobile. After spending the first half of the movie complaining about his neighborhood, Walt employs Thao’s help to clean it up. When he observes Thao miserably failing to interact with a girl who obviously likes him, Walt gives him advice. He teaches Thao how to be a “man” and helps him to a get a job. Finally, when Walt comes to the conclusion that none of Thao’s family will find peace as long as Thao’s tormentors remain, he takes it upon himself to ensure their freedom.

The priest was also an interesting character, but I tended to agree with Walt’s assessment of him: “I think you’re an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.” His appearances do however bring about some interesting conversations about the concept of true freedom through confession and repentance; and even though Walt finally does go to confession, the story actually points to the idea that freedom from guilt and sin may be more complex than just reciting a few words.

In many ways, human disrepair and restoration could be compared to that of Walt’s Gran Torino. In the same way that dents on a car can’t be fixed simply by saying, “I’m sorry,” and “It’s okay,” the damages we carry around with us can’t be either. Even when it comes to the smallest scratches, self-applied cover-up paint will only hide what lies below it. Even though going out and exacting revenge on the party responsible for our injuries might feel like it will make things better, it won’t change the fact that we are still broken; and in most cases, to ever truly repair damage done, we will not only need the assistance of a good insurance policy, but the time, skill, and effort of a good mechanic.

The truth of the matter is that to fix brokenness, find freedom, and restore perfection, true repair requires the sacrifice of a Good Mechanic. In the actions that Walt takes to free Sue and Thao from that which threatens to forever rob them of lives lived to the fullest, Walt demonstrates that reality; and in the symbolic connection of the final actions he takes in the movie with his own past, he also reflects the personal need we all have for more than just words to remedy our own torture. From one angle, you could say Walt’s actions are a denial of God’s power to heal and the need for us to stand up and make amends ourselves; but by essentially becoming a Christ figure himself, and stepping into Sue and Thao’s place and doing what they could never do themselves, his final actions actually point to our need for a higher power of healing, and to the sacrifice that God made to give us just that.

I thought that the movie ended with a little irony. Walt originally berates the priest for his limited knowledge about life and death, claiming that his clichéd words at Mrs. Kowalski’s funeral were a result of youth and ignorance; and yet, the priest’s first words summed up Walt’s story pretty accurately: “Death is bittersweet. Bitter in pain, but sweet in salvation.”

I remember reading some reviews about this movie back when it was originally in the theaters, and one thing they suggest was that this movie was about self-redemption. On one hand, I can see how it could possibly be read that way. On the other hand, I had a different conclusion; especially since Walt’s final posture was Christ-like, as that of Jesus hanging on the cross. Christ didn’t die to make atonement for his own sins, but to bring salvation to others; likewise, Walt didn’t make atonement for his sins from the war, but he brought salvation to Thao’s family. Had Walt chosen another path, Thao and his family would have continued to suffer at the hands of the gang and their own consciences, but Walt’s action served as a rescue from “death” for the Hmong family. In that capacity, he was more like Christ who saves us from “death” in this life and the next.

As a movie about life, death, guilt, and freedom, I felt that Gran Torino is almost a modern day convergence of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One on hand, it is about recognizing the common burdens we share with those around us and our individual ability to help each other carry them. On the other hand, it is also about the need for one who will free us from the bonds we cannot break, heal us from the wounds we cannot fix, and take from us the burdens we cannot let go.

Shelby out!


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