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.
Not exactly highbrow entertainment, but certainly more than meets the eye.