Film Review – Death Wish (2018)
Death Wish (2018)
Death Wish (2018) comes at an unfortunate time. When mass killings have been a constant issue and the debate over firearms is at a fever pitch, releasing a movie in which a family man goes on a violent rampage of revenge doesn’t quite ring the way I’m guessing it was intended to. It’s a lose/lose situation – we’ve been witness to so many tragedies now that there may have never been an “appropriate” time to release this. Writer Joe Carnahan and director Eli Roth update this story (made popular by the 1974 film starring Charles Bronson) for a modern age, but to what ends? The themes aren’t handled well enough for us to consider the real life implications, yet the material isn’t fun enough to be straight entertainment either. I don’t know if this will stir debate and thoughtful think pieces, or if it’s gas being tossed on top of an already raging fire.
The opening establishes the city of Chicago as a hot bed of violent crime. We’re given voiceovers of 911 calls, witness testimonies, and news reports letting us know that the city is overrun by robberies and murder. In this city lives Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) a trauma surgeon at the local hospital. Paul’s life is picture perfect: he has a loving wife (Elisabeth Shue) and a young daughter (Camila Morrone) set to go off to college. Their kitchen looks like something you’d see displayed in Ikea. Everything is going well, until one fateful night when a trio of masked assailants breaks into their home while Paul is away. The confrontation results in both Paul’s wife and daughter being brutally assaulted.
But what the criminals didn’t anticipate was that mild mannered Paul has a mean streak. As authorities come up short in their investigation and as his impatience grows, Paul ends up taking the law into his own hands, turning vigilante and going after the bad guys himself. This is where things turn silly. The writing/direction is so keen in making sure that Paul’s path is set beyond his control that plot developments happen out of nowhere. It’s as though the film wants to justify Paul’s actions, but doesn’t want to hold him accountable for breaking the law. How does Paul acquire a gun if he can’t risk purchasing one himself? The script answers that by simply having a trauma patient wheeled into his care and the gun magically dropping out of the patient’s back pocket. Talk about convenient!
Roth, who made name for himself in the horror genre, continues his fascination with gory violence as Paul starts his killing spree. Paul goes from being a life-saver to a life-taker, willingly shooting, maiming, and torturing his targets without hesitation. He’ll easily walk up to a criminal in broad daylight and unload his pistol into their bodies. Paul keeps his identity secret with the most clever of disguises: a hoodie pulled over his head. He’s thus given the nickname “The Grim Reaper,” with his exploits going viral over the internet.
The premise of an everyday man inflicting his own form of justice has been a tried and true form of dramatic tension. Most recently, Baltasar Kormakur’s The Oath (2016) took a nearly identical set up and really dug into the morality of the protagonist’s choices. It examined whether they were the hero or if they were actually the villain. Death Wish doesn’t handle its themes as thoroughly. We get slight cutaways to real life news journalists and radio personalities debating whether The Grim Reaper’s actions are helping society, and Paul’s brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) comes in to lend some words of wisdom, but in truth Roth is not interested in philosophy. He’s drawn far more to the viscera of men blown to bits. One kill – involving a man being crushed under the weight of a car – is so jarring that I had to laugh it off to shake away the shock. A lesser instance has another bad guy fall victim to a bowling ball placed awkwardly above his vicinity. The pay off is something you’d get from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. If Roth treated the rest of the plot the same way he treats these kill scenes, we could have had a pretty funny black comedy. But alas, it’s a missed opportunity.
There’s nothing wrong with a person wanting to take care of their family. They should have every right to make sure that they take the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe. But where is the line between self-defense and murder? This isn’t treated as an over the top fantasy (ala John Wick) but as down to earth, gritty, and realistic. Things get far more complex when the nature of the material is treated in real world fashion, but the narrative is neither interested nor insightful enough to tackle it’s themes in any serious way.
On a last note: before the screening started our audience was treated to a short video clip of Eli Roth introducing the film. He briefly mentions how he hopes everyone enjoys it, and for those who do to share their thoughts through social media. For those who do not, he advises – in the nicest way possible – to keep their mouths shut. It says a lot about a movie where it’s creator suggests how we should react to it.