Movie Review: “Death Wish”

In general, there are two ways to make a film about vigilantism. One is the straight-up empowerment fantasy, a celebration of man-against-the-odds mayhem that leaves the viewer exhilarated and defiant (Pierre Morel’s “Taken” springs to mind). The second is the tragedy, one that portrays unrestrained violence as an inevitably spiraling cycle of ruin (think James Wan’s “Death Sentence”).

But Eli Roth’s retelling of “Death Wish” charts a third course, hovering unsettlingly between pitiless satire and conventional shoot-‘em-up action. And in a strange way, that’s what makes it memorable.

A loose remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film, this incarnation centers on Chicago trauma surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis). When Kersey’s wife and daughter are brutalized by masked attackers during a home invasion, he finds himself wracked with grief over his perceived inability to “protect what’s his.” The antidote: guns and vigilante violence. Leveraging the underworld know-how gained from his day job, Kersey begins a bloody campaign against Chicago’s criminals as he pursues those responsible for the attack on his home.

Certainly, this is a movie that relies heavily on its bloody gun battles (which are, for the most part, well-choreographed). And in this most straightforward, superficial sense, it’s a passable B-movie that might be worth a Redbox rental. But just like Roth’s last film, “The Green Inferno,” there’s definitely more going on here than meets the eye.

There are parts of “Death Wish” that are virtually impossible to interpret as anything other than satirical. At one point, for instance, Kersey strolls into a gun shop. A busty blonde clerk invites him to buy any gun he wants that very day, assuring him that “no one ever fails” their concealed-carry test. A swipe at what Roth perceives to be too-lax gun regulations? Obviously. But Roth’s social critique doesn’t stop there, as he takes jabs at both police bias and the valorization of mass violence on social media.

The real punch of “Death Wish,” though, rests in its pitiless depiction of right-wing ideology unmoored from any moral underpinnings. Kersey doesn’t fight out of any real love or sense of place or tradition, but rather for his people; his wife and daughter are simply members of his tribe that he must defend. (In a particularly garish moment, Kersey even violently reclaims “his stuff” from a pawnshop, leaving corpses in his wake.)

And no transcendent values hold him back. During a funeral service, Kersey defiantly declares that no divine plan can account for his family’s suffering. Shortly thereafter, the camera lingers on a Baptist church poster advertising a gun buyback program—the exact opposite of what Kersey’s interested in. And when police detectives urge him to “have faith” that his family’s attackers will be brought to justice, Kersey stabs an accusing finger at the wall of cold cases behind them. “What did faith do for them?” he snarls. In this profoundly godless “conservatism,” there can be no room for forgiveness or reconciliation: only the lex talionis.

Naturally, the film’s climax, in which Kersey’s home is attacked a second time, plays out in power-fantasy style. This time, Kersey is armed to the teeth, blasting away villain after villain with no legal consequences (and yes, most of them are minorities). It’s an alt-right fever dream, a vision for which Roth clearly has little sympathy.

At bottom, like most of Roth’s films, “Death Wish” is a fairly misanthropic endeavor. Few viewers will inquire into this film’s politics or religious sensibilities: it features Bruce Willis dealing out damage, and that’s good enough for them. Yet I appreciate that Roth’s movies (well, at least some of them) have the nerve to actually say things about culture in an era where mass appeal is the name of the game. For better or worse, there’s more intellectual coherence in “Death Wish” than in last week’s “Annihilation.” And that, in my book, is a curious and sobering thing.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
Not exactly highbrow entertainment, but certainly more than meets the eye.

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Posted by on March 4, 2018 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Annihilation”

Maybe I’m just intellectually benighted, but I didn’t think Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel “Annihilation” was as groundbreaking as I was told. But when I learned a movie adaptation was forthcoming—and that Alex Garland, the talented director of 2015’s brilliant “Ex Machina,” was behind the camera—I was certainly willing to give the story a second look.

The good news? The film is a lot more fun than the book. The bad? It has no idea what it’s trying to say.

The plot starts straightforwardly: when a strange meteor crashes near a coastal lighthouse, government sensors soon detect the presence of the Shimmer, an atmosphere-distorting phenomenon that repels all radio signals. The Shimmer extends across a large tract of swampland, its boundaries expanding outward with no slowdown in sight. By the time the film begins, no expeditions into the Shimmer have returned. Into the mysterious zone strides Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman)—mourning her husband’s own recent disappearance in the Shimmer—alongside four other female scientists. Their mission: reach the lighthouse at the heart of the Shimmer and discover what’s causing the disturbance. Survival-horror carnage ensues.

One thing in particular stands out: “Annihilation” is a gorgeously designed movie. The lush, genetically unstable interior of the Shimmer comes to life vividly and hauntingly, and ominous sound design adds to the sense of unease.

Garland has taken plenty of liberties with his source material, most of which work to the film’s benefit. Indeed, the movie’s at its best when it embraces its own straight-up pulpiness: “Annihilation” is a lot scarier and more enjoyable than last year’s “Life.” Here we get a gigantic alligator with row after row of sharklike teeth, a mutant bear that can emulate the screams of its past victims, fields of crystalline trees, and bisected bodies fused to thrones of spiraling fungus. If I had to describe this movie in one sentence, it’d be “‘Event Horizon’ in the Everglades”—indeed, we even get a horrifying video clip of a past expedition degenerating into madness.

But unfortunately, things fizzle out in the third act. Just as the story should be rising to a crescendo of dread, we get a climax that feels like a derivative mashup of “The Thing” and “Aliens.” It’s hard to escape the feeling that the final reveal should’ve been something really dreadful, in the vein of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.” Instead, we’re left with an ending that feels both thematically ambiguous and disappointingly final.

As a critic, I’m willing to give films an awful lot of leeway when it comes to messaging (I’ve talked about “Furious 7” as an example of virtue ethics, for crying out loud). Alas, I must conclude that “Annihilation” really doesn’t have anything to say. This is a glossy B-movie that wants to be perceived as more intelligent and “grown-up” than it actually is. And while there are a lot of writers who will probably label this movie “thought-provoking,” I question what thoughts will actually be provoked other than “aliens are bad.” None of the characters are drawn in sufficient detail to prove particularly memorable, and the script steadfastly refuses to provide much context or background.

But notwithstanding its abortive attempts at philosophizing, “Annihilation” makes for an entertaining watch (and I imagine it’ll hold up pretty well on subsequent viewings). At the very least, it’s a reasonably original contribution to its genre that throws some cool monsters at the screen. And for me, that might be enough.

Come for the art design, stay for the mutant creatures. Just don’t expect “Ex Machina 2.”

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Posted by on February 25, 2018 in Sci-Fi

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