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In defence of Death Wish: a racy revenge movie that resists ideological didacticism

Is the new Death Wish – with Bruce Willis in the role famously played by Charles Bronson – a remake of the original film, or a depiction of how the writer (Joe Carnahan) and director (Eli Roth) remember it? The killer moment, so to speak, from the 1974 classic (adapted from a novel by Brian Garfield, who was not a fan) transpired at the very end, just before the closing credits rolled.

It is of Bronson forming a ‘finger gun’ and pointing at hoodlums. Clint Eastwood used the same gesture to much greater, more emotional effect in his 2008 Detroit-based drama Gran Torino. In Eastwood’s film the finger gun ultimately turned tragic, not chilling: the difference between showing somebody dying for a reason (Gran Torino) and killing for a purpose (Death Wish).

While Death Wish’s 1982 sequel was racier, gorier and more exploitative, the original was measured and disciplined – certainly when it came to representations of violence. This was one of the reasons it caused such a stir: the film couldn’t be laughed away as merely a smutty B picture, pumped full of chaos and splatter. Not the sort of film where you see, for example, somebody’s brains bursting out of their skull.

Opinions have flown around arguing that now is not the right time to release such a film, the implication being that there is a ‘right’ time to tell a story about violent angry men hunting down people to kill.

Eli Roth’s new version, on the other hand….the director and torture porn specialist (best known for horror films such as Cabin Fever and Hostel) goes there. In addition to the mercifully brief moment of bursting brains, there is a scene when protagonist Dr. Paul Kersey (Willis), a surgeon whose wife is killed by home invaders and daughter put into a coma, tortures a grease monkey by using the elements around him, i.e. chains and sprays. For a moment the protagonist is like a kind of sadistic, bizarro MacGyver.

These occasions arrive late in the piece. It would be wrong to call Roth’s film a slow burn – given it is sharply staged and edited, with a thrillingly escalated pace – but these moments are delayed, and have weight behind them. They stand out in their extremity, rather than set or reflect a standard.

Opinions have flown around arguing that now is not the right time to release such a film, the implication being that there is a ‘right’ time to tell a story about violent angry men hunting down people to kill. For more on this topic see also: the recent small screen adaptation of Romper Stomper. The maker’s of that show made the mistake of believing that depicting something (i.e. a violent rally or hate speech) is the same thing as ‘exploring’ it.

Death Wish is more a case of moments of food for thought splashed across a hot-blooded revenge arc.

Death Wish, on the other hand, does credibly unpack an incendiary topic, though a rigorous analysis it is not. It’s more a case of moments of food for thought splashed across a hot-blooded revenge arc. The big question is where the film itself is placed ideologically, or if it should have espoused a specific ideology in the first place. Roth has been slammed for not having a clear anti-gun message, rather than acknowledged for encompassing multiple sides of a debate.

Having said that, arguing the new Death Wish unreservedly supports the views of the gun-toting, ‘by my cold dead hands’ American conservative would require at certain moments the viewer to close their eyes and block their ears.

At one point an angry, grieving Kersey is slumped on his couch, watching a commercial for the Jolly Roger’s firearms emporium. This commercial has the credibility of one of those cheapo late night ads that scream ‘DOORS DOORS DOORS!’ Later he visits the place, encountering a buxom employee who laughs at the suggestion that the paperwork will be onerous, and tells him “no one ever fails” the obligatory gun safety classes. Safety, ha!

Are critics who oppose the film on an ideological level seriously supposing the filmmakers endorse the sentiments of the gun-selling woman in the low-cut top? Is it so illogical to suggest they are actually arguing this situation (and legislation) is absurd? There is also a scene with a news bulletin reporting that a copycat vigilante, inspired by Kersey, attempted to similarly deliver ‘justice’ by bullet – i.e. gunning down a goon – but in the process was shot dead by his target. This message is conspicuously cautionary, though Roth doesn’t linger on it.

Ideologically nuanced films, or films that explore incendiary topics without a didactic approach, can be difficult to read and easy to underappreciate.

There is an irony at the core of the new Death Wish: that its protagonist is a life-saving surgeon by day and a serial killer by night (in the original film, he was an architect). The significance of this is reflected in the film’s most memorable, politically salient touch. The director presents a split screen showing, on the left of the frame, Kersey as a surgeon removing bullets from patients, and on the right, Kersey firing guns.

It might be a bridge too far to interpret this as delineated political commentary: the political left – with a literal bleeding heart – removing bullets and the right, fantasising about different ways to use them. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if this turned out to be Roth’s intention.

Consensus seems to be that the current mood and sensibilities are not right for a Death Wish redux (of course, the same thing was said about the original). This suggests a rather short-sighted way of viewing art; nothing ages faster than the zeitgeist. Ideologically nuanced films, or films that explore incendiary topics without a didactic approach, can be difficult to read and easy to underappreciate, which is perhaps why the critic Roger Ebert (and many others) chastised Kubrick’s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange at the time of its release, labelling it a “paranoid right-wing fantasy.”

Death Wish is not in the same league. But nor does it deserve to be labelled stylistically shallow and ideologically putrid – unlike the recent, rancid, Russian-hating Red Sparrow, which has had a more generous reception.

3 responses to “In defence of Death Wish: a racy revenge movie that resists ideological didacticism

  1. Deep in the psyche of many Americans is the cowboy myth that no matter how much shit you’re in, you can always buy a piece and waste those mofos troubling you. It is the curse of that nation, and ‘Death Wish’, in all its remakes and sequels, is very much a part of the gun problem. Shame someone can’t make a movie about how Bruce Willis fought for legislation that resulted in more effective policing, but I guess that would be too dull, and require a lot of tiring brain work.

  2. “Roth has been slammed for not having a clear anti-gun message, rather than acknowledged for encompassing multiple sides of a debate.” Meanwhile the USA has a President arming School Teachers. Get real.

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