Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 8:54 pm | Fair 52º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Gran Torino’

Sacrificial love transforms the lives of those who least expect it.

4 Stars — Profound

There are few of us who don’t have significant regrets about our past behaviors. How we deal with those regretful behaviors deeply impacts our lives. When we confess our sins, we receive forgiveness. When we deny our sins, we project our regrets on others and become judgmental and unsatisfiable. This reality is profoundly presented in Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino. As director, producer and star of the film, he creates vintage Eastwood magic at the top of his game.

Based on a story by Dave Johannson, the central character is a septuagenarian who has just lost his wife. Standing at the head of the casket at her funeral and obviously dissatisfied with his sons, grandchildren and priest, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a lonely man. He is also a crusty old man with a racist bigotry, obscene vocabulary and violent past who lives in his lifelong home in the middle of a neighborhood that changed long ago. His now dangerous neighborhood is inter-racially populated with conflicting gangs, the white flight happened years before, and this is a topic of concern among his adult children. Next door to his carefully maintained older home lives a Hmong family he despises without even knowing them. But providence provides him with the opportunity to find love and redemption.

The unexpected love comes from the two teenagers of his next-door neighbor’s family. Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) is an insecure high school student who is pursued by his cousin’s Hmong gang. Harassed by a Hispanic gang, Thao’s cousin and other gang members come to his rescue. But when he rejects their demand to join the gang, the violence escalates. When an altercation occurs in front of their house and spills over into Walt’s yard, he enters with armed force to stop it. This is experienced by the Hmong community as a heroic protection of young Thao. They respond with abundant, although unwelcomed, expressions of appreciation.

Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), reaches out to Walt with an unconditional acceptance that softens his heart. Regretting his lack of relationship with his own sons, Walt’s empty heart is touched by her love and eventually by Thao’s need for a guiding hand.

Part of what makes this film profound is the developing pastoral care of his young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley). Seen by Walt as an “over-educated 27-year-old virgin,” it is Janovich’s persistence and authenticity that finally provides the opportunity for confession and forgiveness. But what Walt does to face the evil of his community is profoundly spiritual. We won’t spoil it for you by telling the ending here, but the redemptive and sacrificial action he takes reveals the genuine transformation that has taken place in him over the course of these relationships.

Deserving of its “R” rating due to obscene language, vile racial slurs and violence, Gran Torino is a study of a life that lost its way and yet is pursued by a love that would not stop. Walt’s ultimate response is both healing and instructive for the young people in his neighborhood who look to him as a model for their new American lives. It is his gradual transformation into a worthy role model who acts out of sacrificial love that makes this film profound.


» As in two previous Eastwood films, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino is about an older man who becomes an unexpected mentor to a younger person. What do you think changed in Thao’s life because of the mentoring Walt provided?

» The urban jungle with its warring gangs is dangerous. If you were Walt’s sons, what would you have done to help your father?

» The promise that Father Janovich made to Walt’s wife to hear his confession is finally fulfilled because of the priest’s faithful pursuit. Have you ever been pursued by a pastor? What was the result of that journey?

» The plan Walt executes at the end of the film to help Thao and Sue is clearly a Christian act. What do you believe motivated his sacrificial action? Do you believe it was his own health situation, his caring concern for his neighbors, his desire to do something good with his life, or other factors that were primary in his decision to do this?

» How well do you know your neighbors? Have you ever been motivated to extend yourself as a mentor, protector or to provide other support to a neighbor in need?

Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit

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