Gran Torino, Intercultural Communication, and the Gospel

(I originally wrote this for a class at Gateway Seminary, earlier this semester.)

*** Spoilers Ahead ***

The film, Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood, is a fantastic example of a person moving from unconscious intercultural incompetence to unconscious intercultural competence. Additionally, when looked at through a Christian lens, parallels to the Gospel are abundant, especially when one considers that Jesus ministered interculturally during His time on earth (cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

The movie starts with Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, a retired Korean War veteran, attending the funeral of his wife. He is surrounded by biological family both at the funeral and at the reception at his home afterwards. During the reception, he steps outside to be alone, and after seeing a bunch of Hmong people entering the house next door, he betrays his unconscious interculteral incompetence by uttering racial slurs and commenting on the fact that the neighborhood has changed for the worst.

Father Janovich, the twenty-seven year old priest who conducted Kowalski’s wife’s funeral is a minor example of a second intercultural relationship. He’s fresh out of the seminary, and to use Walt’s words, “knows very little about life and death.” But he’s persistent in his pursuit of Walt, never pushing Walt too far, genuinely concerned about Walt’s well-being, and willing to meet Walt where he is at. He never considers himself better than Walt, and also refers to him respectfully as, “Mister Kowalski.”

A key difference between Mr. Kowalski and the Hmong culture is that Walt is clearly very individualistic, whereas the Hmong people value unity and connectedness. It might appear initially that Walt is connected to his family–since he is surrounded by them–but as he says after starting to build relationships with the Hmong, “I have more in common with these [slur] than my own spoiled, rotten family.” This starts to show his transition away from unconscious intercultural incompetence. While present at a barbecue with the Hmongs, Walt is informed of various cultural facts so he can better understand the people. Eye contact is a primary example of the culture shock he experienced here. It is at this point that he moves to conscious incompetence.

Another proof of Walt’s individuality is his initial refusal to allow Thao to recompense his attempted theft of Walt’s ‘72 Gran Torino by working for him. In refusing to allow Thao to work for him, it is taken as an insult by the Hmongs, and Walt becomes the “bad guy.” As such, he acquiesces and allows Thao to help–moving from refusing help to accepting help.

While Thao works for him, the two become friends. He becomes a mentor to the kid, and he tries to set him up for success. Walt becomes very close with his neighbors in this time, and it is in this time that he transitions to conscious competence.

It is important to note that Walt never loses his personality throughout the movie, though he does become more joyful. His Hmong “family” doesn’t expect him to always be serious, and as such, he is often cracking jokes with them. A primary example is the joke about eating dogs to which Sue (Thao’s sister) always replies, “We eat cats.” This shows that intercultural communication is not a one-sided street; communication by necessity is two-ways; both sides must work together to understand the other.

It is while Walt is barbecuing for his neighbors, when he offers Thao to take his Gran Torino on a date that he begins to move into unconscious competence. Additionally, around this same time, Walt goes out of his way to request help from Thao in moving a fridge, demonstrating his departure from full-blown individualism.

However, Walt’s transition from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence occurs when the gang shoots up Thao’s house and kidnaps and rapes Sue. The family wants to stay quiet and do nothing. Thao wants to return violence for violence–taking the same path their attackers took. Walt knows these are unacceptable alternatives. So he does the only thing possible to get justice for his Hmong family and keep Thao from ending up in a gang. He sacrifices himself–shot while unarmed–and the killers are arrested and jailed for a long time. He went from despising these people to empathizing with them enough to sacrifice himself for them. It’s a complete intercultural-perception revolution.

When Walt falls to the ground, his arms are outstretched and his legs are together as if lying on a cross. This is important because the next thing we see is his funeral: Walt’s family on one side and his Hmong family on the other side. In a certain sense, Walt’s death–and life prior–accomplished an illustration of Ephesians 2:14:

For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility.

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura
Sola Gratia
Pro Ecclesia

Thanks for reading.

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