Wednesday, April 6, 2011

netflix'd: Death Wish

I think I became aware of Death Wish as a series in the mid-1980s when its sequels began cropping up seemingly every other year. Witnessing only the TV commercials and not the actual films as I was a pre-teen then, even to my young eyes these films looked rather comedic, exploitative and cheesy. These commercials were also my only real exposure to Charles Bronson until I finally watched "Once Upon A Time In The West" a few years back, but I've never dismissed my initial perception of him being a b-list tough guy action hero with no real cinematic accomplishments or merit.

My viewing of the original 1974 Death Wish was spurred on by the desire to have a film on in the background, but not anything requiring much focussed attention, as well I had my interest piqued from a recent AV Club "New Cult Canon" entry for Death With 3. While the film was largely as I expected, I actually found myself drawn into it more that I had anticipated. It's actually a pretty fascinating film, not as cinema, but as a relic of its era and setting, 1974 New York, capturing in broad strokes a crime riddled country, its metropolitan streets seemingly overrun by thugs and goons and the extreme sentimentality of the fear-addled middle class. Other films of the era, from the most exploitative like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave to Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors also tapped into a similar paranoia and fascination with street crime and vigilante justice.

Death Wish is a colourless film, painting largely in black and white, with very little grey in between, but just enough to make it interesting. Bronson, here roughly 50 years old, looks weathered and well worn, with a sleepy mannerism that doesn't exactly scream action hero, though an opening sequence with Bronson on the beach with his wife shows him still with a prime physique. Bronson plays New York architect Paul Kersey, average Joe, and paradoxically Korean war vet and conscientious objector. There's some insightful debate about city living versus the suburbs which establishes Kersey as both a somewhat liberal and stoic fellow. But his world turns upside-down when a trio of goons (including Jeff Goldblum) follow his wife and adult daughter home from the grocery store, where one is killed and the other is atrociously violated in about as explicit a scene as you'd see in a major motion picture from '74.

Kersey wrestles with his own feelings about society and his own safety, as his daughter's descent into institutionalized depression is a continuous reminder of the horrors the city can inflict upon the individual. The detective on the case meanwhile, bluntly state that the likelihood of catching an prosecuting the men responsible, considering their overwhelming caseload, is slim. Later, armed with a sock full of quarters, he bashes a mugger on the head, his reaction both cathartic and nauseating.

Feeling it's for the best, Kersey accepts a month-long business trip to Tuscon, Arizona where he finds himself confronted with mid-west gun culture and attitude, as well as an Old West show where cowboys and vigilantism was order of the day. He returns home with a gun gifted to him (the sequence at the airport has a completely different resonance today).

Back in New York, Kersey searches out trouble, armed with a solution. His vigilante actions start to attract police and media attention alike, both inspiring and condemning. As gratuitous as the violence is, as cartoonish as the thieves and muggers are that Kersey kills, it's actually to a point, unfortunately the point is lost on the filmmakers. The film up until the last act, plays smartly with the characters and the situation, Bronson embracing the conflict and turmoil as well as adeptly displaying the psychotic break from passive observer to proactive murderer. But in the last act, instead of showing the repercussions of vigilante justice (both on an emotional level and a legal one) as it had been building towards, it instead veers into celebration of Kersey's actions and his newfound attitude, as if it's a middle-age WASP rallying cry to arms.

The intelligence the film does display is likely drawn from its source novel by Brian Garfield, who condemned the film from the outset for getting the message wrong. Apparently it was supposed to be a condemnation of vigilantism, something his follow-up novel and the 2007 Kevin Bacon film Death Sentence strove to clarify. But Bronson's Kersey becomes pathological in his desire to kill street hoods, and even begins to enjoy it. The closing moments, where Kersey, relocating to Chicago at the behest of the lead detective on his case, crouches in O'Hare pointing gun fingers at a group of nuisance teenager with a broad grin on his face. It's actually more unsettling than inspiring.

Though his inception may not have been directly inspired by Death Wish, the mythology of the character seems to have direct parallel to Kersey, except where the cinematic Kersey is portrayed as an even-keel everyman, Frank Castle is posited as a man who tipped over the edge and has no desire to look back.

I can't say I loved or even particularly liked Death Wish, but it's a smart enough film and presents a contentious concept in both overt and subversive ways that make it worth paying attention to (I doubt that the sequels can make the same claim). I still have to question whether the filmmakers had a specific agenda or if they were just being wry. The New York streets of the era and their prevalence of crime are legendary but I have an extremely difficult time believing that they were anything remotely like how they're presented at the time, like Kersey and his family are presented in live action and the streets and criminals are out of Roger Rabbit.

Some interesting points about the film: Herbie Hancock provides a rather inspired score, perhaps better than the film deserves? I spotted Sesame Street's Maria as a cashier early in the film (she was apparently director Michael Winner's girlfriend at the time), and towards the film's close a very young (uncredited though he has a couple lines) Christopher Guest plays a police officer. Apparently Denzel Washington plays a mugger but I didn't catch that one, perhaps still distracted from the Goldblum mouth rape which would send anyone into catatonia.