Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recent Watches: Death Wish

The “Death Wish” series are the sort of films Conservative love. There are people in the world, let’s face it, white and elderly people, who look at the streets and these kids today and the crime rates and think the world is seriously on the brink. So, when you’ve got elderly, white Charles Bronson, a paragon of old-fashion American masculinity, going out and shooting punks dead in cold blood, it speaks to a certain part of the population. It’s a fantasy. If there’s any truth to how Bronson took the script, it was a fantasy for him too.

Which is a little odd, when you consider the source material. The original novel “Death Wish” by Brian Garfield isn’t so much about vigilantism as it is about what it takes to turn a pacifist into a vigilante. It’s about violence rotting away at the culture it inhabits. Paul Benjamen (Kersey in the movie) is a bleeding heart liberal until muggers break into his house, beat his wife to death and rape his daughter into a state of catatonia. We get a lot of pages describing Paul’s peace of mind slowly eroding until he can’t sleep any longer. The book’s more then half way over by the time he finally takes the law into his own hands. By the end of the book, when he’s picking off hopped-up teenagers playing deadly pranks, it’s more then implied that his acts of vigilantism are no less random and unjustifiable then the attacks that started the ball rolling. It’s a book about how violence can only corrupt and destroy.

Not quite as much of that as you’d expect is ejected from the original 1975 “Death Wish.” Oh, all that stuff about violence being bad is nowhere to be seen, that’s for fucking sure. But the movie dwells a little more on how this all weights on the protagonist’s state of mind then I remembered. Charles Bronson, so completely stone-faced and utterly unfeeling in ninety percent of his roles, actually allows himself to show some emotions. The character starts out as a pacifistic architect. The first scene of the film shows Kersey on the beach with his wife, enjoying a nice romantic moment, setting up the inevitable lost. When he gets the news of his wife’s death, the camera lingers on his eyes and he’s rendered speechless by grief. His interaction with his stunned daughter and her anguished husband show his frustration and depression over the situation. Bronson never cries, of course not, and we certainly never see the level of angst over the event that was displayed in the book. The guy drowns his sorrows in his work. But you do see the toll it takes on Kersey’s shoulders making his slow descend into isolation and, eventually, the justification to pick up a pistol and pop punks, more plausible.

The movie quickly descends into complete revenge fantasy not long after that. Director Michael Winner and its star weren’t interested in exploring the ambiguity of Kersey’s actions. He’s fully justified and his shoot-outs with crooks are nothing but glamorous. The movie is shot more like a thriller then an action flick. The film makes it clear this is mostly a normal guy and he’s more-then-a-little over his head, even if it is fucking Bronson we’re talking about here. There might be some more stuff going on under the surface here. Early on, we see a Western stunt show. Later on, Kersey quotes cowboy lingo before collapsing from his wounds. Is, maybe, just maybe, the filmmaker making some sort of comment about how impractical the wild west credo is when applied to real life or the modern age? Probably not, but I like to think so.

The original is a classic, in its own way. The opening title presented over the setting sun, while the darkly jazzy tones of Herbie Hancock’s score play overhead, is atmospheric and set the dark tone of the film to follow. The scene of Kersey shooting down a gang of thugs on a stairway is fantastic and I really like the final sequence set in an abandoned construction site. Morally reprehensible, perhaps, but pretty entertaining. It’s the film that broke Bronson out of the western mode he had found himself and turned him into as big of a star as he would ever be. (7/10)


Jeff Goldblum has his debut role as one of the punks who rapes Bronson’s daughter and murders his wife. I think Jeff got the part just because he looks so much like a sweaty hophead.

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