DIRECTED BY ELI ROTH/2018
The oft-dubbed “torture porn” director, Eli Roth, takes a stab at more mainstream fare following a semi-first attempt with Knock Knock in 2015. For his latest film, he has resurrected the character of Paul Kersey, from 1974’s film Death Wish. This was the character made famous by Charles Bronson, a New York architect who takes the law into his own hands, murdering vicious criminals at night following his wife’s brutal murder in their home, resulting in several sequels.
This plot, from the original film, is largely left intact, and is based on the novel by Brian Garfield. Subtle changes abound between the 2018 version of Death Wish and the original, as Bruce Willis plays Paul Kersey, now a hospital surgeon in North Chicago, the appropriate setting as it is currently the murder capital of the United States. When his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered, and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is left for dead, the man who saves lives begins to feel the desire to take the lives of those who did this to his family.
The main impetus for this is agony of waiting for the police to run down appropriate leads. Detective Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and his partner Detective Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise) are working on countless cases, overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases in the Chicago-land area that they are tasked with protecting. Kersey begins to feel that he has failed to do a fundamental duty as a husband and father in protecting his family.
When fate lands a gun into his hands at the hospital, he begins the slow descent into vigilante justice, whom the public dubs “the grim reaper” following a viral YouTube video of him, his identity obscured by the hoodie he wears, taking out some carjackers, saving a woman’s life. Radio personalities begin to debate whether this “grim reaper” is good for the city or not, as he begins to grow to like it. Eventually, he will find himself confronting those that killed his wife and nearly murdered his daughter.
Eli Roth keeps things moving, and on the whole, it is a worthy remake. Willis has enough charisma to ground this whole thing, and the script seeks to keep it relevant as it asks questions about violence, especially as it relates to race relations. For example, one question that is discussed by the radio personalities, as a reflection of the differing audience views, is the fact that the grim reaper takes out a black drug dealer. Is the fact that it was a white man shooting a black man make it more or less acceptable by either race? Largely, the white radio show, represented by the real-life radio DJ Man-Cow, comes across with the view that this guy Kersey is a hero, where the black radio show, represented by SiriusXM’s Sway Calloway of “Sway in the Morning”, believes its a slippery slope and the fact that the “grim reaper” took out a black criminal that helps the largely black neighborhood, paints a grey area. Do we justify the means because of the ends that they achieve? Is that complicated by things like race relations? Location (Chicago in the film)? Socio-economic conditions? Is cleaning up our own neighborhoods the job of politicians and the police, or is it acceptable for citizens to deal with it, and if so, what is the acceptable way to do so?
This grey area was always the appeal of these movies. In the original, crime is cut down so low that the cops really don’t want to arrest Kersey as they begin to suspect him of being the vigilante. Here, it is more driven by the fact that the cops understand a father seeking to eliminate the threats to his family, and the fact that he takes out other criminals, is something they might be willing to ignore. This is left clearly for the audience to decide, and it drives the action.
The problem with the film though is how that tension is not really maintained throughout as much as its picked up when needed. At first, Kersey is spurned by a need to protect, but then that is dropped as he begins to like it. It is too abrupt of an embrace, where his shifting loyalty between doing the right thing (the wrong way), and becoming a criminal himself isn’t really wrestled with. Later, he seems to automatically pick back up that tension when it serves the narrative needs at the moment. It would have been more effective to challenge this line throughout. Vincent D’onofrio, also makes a welcome addition to the cast as Kersey’s brother Frank, but isn’t given much to do, until Paul needs a “Jiminy Cricket” moment, bringing his conscience back in line with the real reason he started all of this.
Most who enjoyed the original film will find enough to like here. In light of the recent school shootings, and other violence, and the larger gun debate raging in the culture at the moment, Death Wish might end up being a casualty at the box office, at least in areas where gun control measures are more supported. In areas that support open carry, etc., you’ll find more support for the film, I believe….at least that’s my theory. I think it would be an interesting thing to measure as a means to see how a film like Death Wish that seeks to expose, and wrestle with, the grey line that this film addresses, and see if there is a correlation between how it plays out at the box office in a culture and society that is wrestling with that exact same thing.