What is wrong with us?
At a late-morning Sunday showing of Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, a theater of about 65 people taking advantage of half-price matinee tickets let loose a few sparse chuckles at Bruce Willis’s characteristic tough-guy-with-untreated-depression quips, jumped when Willis fired a pistol in an echo-y warehouse and gasped when a bad guy’s head got crushed by a car like a Gallagher watermelon. But for the most part, the audience was as lifeless and disengaged as Roth’s movie itself, a winky wannabe-exploitation drama that would like to condemn some gun violence while getting off on its hero’s killing spree.
And yet at the film’s conclusion, as Willis’s Dr. Kersey sprayed his final victim with bullets — there’s no way to spoil this film, as who doesn’t know the white guy with the gun will triumph through gunplay? — the audience broke out into a smattering of dutiful applause, as though it was expected of them. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they responded the second Willis smirked and delivered an inane and unmemorable one-liner; that was the signal: His gun was the best gun of all the guns.
What is wrong with us?
And then I think of the handful of trailers we sat through, leading up to the main event, all tailored to the expected tastes of crowds who would buy tickets for Death Wish. Each featured guns, some to a fetishistic degree, like Sicario 2: Soldado, Skyscraper and even Deadpool 2 — the original Deadpool charmingly did away with most of its firearms in its pivotal final fight. Guns, guns, guns and more guns. I’d love to say this display in film is an anomaly, but it’s not.
In 2017, Gary Baum and Scott Johnson reported on the NRA’s codependent relationship with the movie industry for the Hollywood Reporter. In their research, they visited the NRA “Hollywood Guns” museum exhibit, finding that “gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985,” and that “the number of gun models pictured in big box-office movies between 2010 and 2015 was 51 percent higher than it had been a decade earlier.”
Not all gun violence is created equally on screen; a cinematic shootout can be portrayed with nuance, allowing an audience to see the toll of gun deaths, like in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Or perhaps the gunfire is campy beyond all believability to satirize media representations of violence, as in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. But Roth’s Death Wish is neither of those things. It is, instead, a movie about cowardly men pew-pewing their little instruments of death at each other while AC/DC’s “Back in Black” guitar-jizzes all over the carnage. I don’t even think I can accurately call this film “exploitation.” That would imply the director is showing us something we haven’t seen again and again, as if he were daring to break a taboo rather than revel in the gun violence so many Americans consider a sort of birthright.
Dr. Kersey is not a caricature, a bubbling-up of an ugly id personified into man. Roth makes Kersey a level-headed, trustworthy man who, with a few nights’ practice in a warehouse, suddenly becomes a sharpshooter and then a nonchalant cold-blooded murderer. Yet Roth invites us to sympathize with Dr. Kersey as just a regular, nice-enough guy who’s made some mistakes (wink, wink, those thugs had it coming tho, right?), even as Roth intercuts fictionalized media reactions to Kersey’s “Grim Reaper” vigilantism, where morning radio hosts ask their listeners if they are “Team Grim Reaper.” It seems as though Roth would like his audience to be answering that question, while his film makes it abundantly clear that there is no other team but the Reaper’s.
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How does this film depart from Michael Winner’s 1974 version, starring Charles Bronson? For one, Bronson’s Kersey is a smoldering cauldron of paranoia and insanity, driven to excess of violence by the big, bad city. For all its faults, Winner’s film still functions as gritty exploitation: It’s shockingly over the top, and Bronson plays his role with grave seriousness. Willis’s Kersey, however, is a suburban “feminized” male who seeks to de-escalate violence until he grows impatient with the cops’ progress on his wife’s murder case, buys a gun and starts shooting people in Chicago, cracking some jokes along the way. Roth doesn’t put us into Kersey’s deteriorating psyche or even hint that Kersey might be losing his mind — one would have to be to shoot up a bunch of strangers on a whim. Kersey is the everyman, and Roth’s movie, whether he likes it or not, is the good-guy-with-a-gun propaganda the NRA is just lapping up straight out of the toilet.
But this gets me back to my original question: What is wrong with us?
In 2010, novelist Christopher Sorrentino authored a long-form critical take of the original Death Wish for Soft Skull Press. I nodded along as he asked: Is “Death Wish a good movie that ultimately fails or is it a bad movie that succeeds brilliantly from time to time?” But there came one glaring point at which my opinions diverged from Sorrentino’s, one glaring point where I always seem to find myself disagreeing with people about movies (usually men). Winner’s Death Wish, contrary to Sorrentino’s and many others’ opinions, is not an “apolitical” film. And neither is Roth’s.
Art is not made objectively. Only in your dreams is there a magical place where context does not exist, where Roth’s script’s frequent mentions of all the gun violence in Chicago don’t dog-whistle to the NRA and a shoot-first-think-later approach to community policing. As so many miffed commenters will remind me, I’m sure, Death Wish is just a piece of media. But so is all propaganda.