Sunday, October 16, 2011

Death Wish - 1974

"Death Wish" - 1974
Dir. by Michael Winner - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Death Wish" isn't a bad movie by any stretch, but it's probably more interesting as a cultural artifact than it is just on it's merits as a movie.  It came after "Dirty Harry," but continues along the same notion of taking matters into your own hands, in the most extreme manner possible.  Partially, you just have to shrug and say, "It was the 70's."  But that's not really the entire story.

As for the plot, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has his wife and daughter attacked in his own apartment by a gang of hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum's movie debut).  The attack is savage (and benefits from not having been filmed during the last twenty years - instead of the now-standard "shaky-cam" approach, a more documentary, fly-on-the-wall approach is taken); Kersey's wife dies from a beating, and his daughter goes catatonic post-rape.  Who knows what to do after something like that happens?  Paul reluctantly accepts an out-of-town temporary assignment from his employer on the advice of his son-in-law (who confusingly (and a little whiningly) keeps referring to Paul as "dad").  The trip seems to help, and Paul is befriended by Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), which reintroduces Paul to guns, which he grew up with.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that Ames drives the sweetest whip ever to grace Tucson, Arizona.

Upon returning to New York, Paul finds out that his daughter's condition has worsened, and that she's going to have to be institutionalized.  At this point, Paul snaps (sort of; Bronson's a pretty stoic actor), grabs the pistol that Ames gave him as a present, and starts trolling the streets of 1970's New York City, hoping for someone to try to rob him.  He is obliged, and ends up shooting a mugger in the chest.  It's a transformational experience for Paul.  Up to that point, he's explicitly described as a bleeding-heart liberal, and had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War.  He returns to his apartment and literally throws up, but it's not the end of his vigilante rampage.  After a series of confrontations, one goes wrong, and Paul is apprehended by the police, but not jailed.

The idea of vigilante justice isn't a new one at the point that "Death Wish" was released, but the particular flavor of it is telling of it's time.  It feels like a push-back on the counter-culture movement of the 60's and 70's; straight-laced and responsible people felt threatened, and as if their world was spinning out of control.  At one point, Paul asks his son-in-law, "I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become?  What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?"  The son-in-law stammers out an answer, but the unspoken reply is that it would make you a coward.  In this situation, the only "reasonable" response to bewilderment or discomfort is violence.  The answer lies at the end of a gun's barrel.

What makes this interesting is the extremes to which people must have felt themselves pushed to embrace vigilantism as an answer.  It was the 70's, but in NYC, historically speaking, things hadn't even reached their apex (or nadir).  David Berkowitz or Bernie Goetz hadn't achieved infamy by this point, that sort of overt madness was still bubbling under.  Thinking of New York now, it seems almost absurd to think that a movie about shooting street thugs would be popular to any extent.  But this is a different movie about a different New York.

Charles Bronson's stoicism works well for this character; it's not hard to put yourself into his shoes (especially given the circumstances, ones that would test any man's character).  But it's the attack scene early on that really makes this movie work.  As I mentioned earlier, if this movie was filmed today, it likely would have been done with shaky camera work and hasty edits.  I find myself increasingly numb to that sort of approach; it's gimmicky and ineffective.  The trio of thugs (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Logan, and Gregory Rozakis) are there for money and kicks, and not to entertain an audience.  The violence is played as matter-of-fact (and they beat the hell out of the two women, Hope Lange (Paul's wife) and Kathleen Tolan (daughter) and savage.  Goldblum's character (Freak #1!) tears off Tolan's clothes and forces a sex act on her, but what we don't have here is titillating close-ups on Tolan's breasts, or even on Goldblum's bare tuchus.  Again, director Michael Winner understands the point of the scene, and keeps on point.  This is important to the rest of the film, because if the initial attack scene works, the movie doesn't have to keep justifying Paul Kersey's actions each time.  And because it does work, the specter of this attack hangs over every one of the other criminals that ends up getting shot.  All of the criminals are paying for the sins of the first gang, and in terms of internal logic, the film holds together.

I ended up liking "Death Wish," probably because it's a less-sanitized version of the current incarnation of vigilante movies, the comic book superhero film.  It's not fanciful and acrobatic, but it's also no less morally lacking.  Obviously, people watch films all the time where they don't agree with the actions of the characters.  As entertainment, the movie holds together pretty well, and gives a plausible explanation of how someone could go from being a conscientious objector to gunning down thugs in the middle of the street.  Whether or not you think that shooting criminals is a reasonable reaction to crime isn't important; it poses an extreme answer to a problem, which is then the viewer's responsibility to work through and debate for themselves.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

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