Let’s talk for just a moment about the Catholic priest in Gran Torino and his relation to Walt and the function of that relation in the movie. For just a moment, because I don’t think it’s worth more than a moment’s discussion.
The priest is a young man, just out of seminary; Janovich is his name. Walt calls him an overeducated virgin. He tells him he knows nothing of life and death, after Janovich tries to instruct Walt on life and death. And Walt is largely right. The Janovich character knows very little.
He does redeem himself, however. He has made a promise to Walt’s dying wife that he will somehow get Walt to confess his sins to him, and Walt hasn’t been to church in decades. He doesn’t have any use for it. Or for confession. So Janovich, in order to have any hope at all of fulfilling his promise, must engage with Walt. He must humble himself to Walt and listen to Walt’s abuse. He must earn Walt’s trust and confidence or at least attempt to do so.
Janovich redeems himself by being willing to learn from Walt. By his persistence in pressing himself upon Walt, even in the face of significant abuse. By his tacit admission that Walt can teach him something.
So Janovich becomes an echo, to some extent, of Thao. He serves as Walt’s apprentice also. Walt helps him understand something about the terror and horror of war and of killing in war and about how killing stays with you. This torment is something that confession will not touch. That preaching about forgiveness is likely not going to touch.
And Walt teaches Janovich something about love. About what real love looks like. A man possessing real love doesn’t stand ineffectually by while those he loves are tormented. A real lover looks for effectiveness. Looks to take action that is effective, that will protect his loved ones.
And of course this is what Walt does. Eastwood’s acting is very good. We can almost see the chained syllogisms locking Walt’s action into place. The Hmong gang will be expecting Walt and Thao. They’ll be ready for them. An assault will not be effective. Walt and/or Thao will be stopped, killed most probably, without achieving the objective—the complete elimination of the gang and the opening of freedom and possibility to Thao and Sue.
Walt is old. He has an ailment that will take his life in the foreseeable future—he repeatedly coughs up blood. His life is coming to an end, anyway. How can he achieve his purpose? Giving his life isn’t all that big a deal, if he can achieve this one thing.
Janovich doesn’t teach Walt. Walt teaches him. Because Walt cares about Janovich, he confesses to him. He enables Janovich to clear his conscience. The confession to Janovich means nothing to Walt spiritually, except that by doing it, he is able to lighten Janovich’s conscience. Enable him to fulfill his promise to Walt’s dying wife.
Janovich doesn’t bring spiritual truth to Walt. Walt brings spiritual truth to Janovich. Walt shows him what real love for his neighbors looks like. Real love isn’t sophomoric eulogies. Real love is real sacrifice for others. Real love is effective action in the world.
And so the theology that this movie preaches is the theology of the supernatural God naturally inhabiting natural man. The idea here is that Walt follows his heart, no matter how foul-mouthed and growly he is. From the beginning of the film, when he helps jumpstart a Hmong’s vehicle, until he lies dead in front of the Hmong gang’s house. And his heart is the more reliable source of spiritual truth than Janovich is. The idea here is that the love that is in Walt’s heart—if left to its own devices—is capable of changing the world.
But as I say. This is all tangential. This relation between Walt and Janovich. Oh, for us bashers of the priestly class it offers a vicarious thrill or two. And it does make some theological and spiritual claims that otherwise would not be there. But this is another subject. This is another matter, really, for another film.
I’ve heard that Eastwood isn’t going to make any more films. It will be sad if that turns out to be true. He has given us some first rate ones in the last decade or so. He has given us stories of what it looks like for a man to live out his love, no matter what, which is of course what we’re all looking for.