Monday, October 01, 2007

Death Wish 1&2

The novel Death Wish was, as I stated in my review, spare and generally neutral about whether liberal turned vigilante Paul Benjamin was a good upstanding citizen pushed too far or a psychopath indulging his inner fascist. The movie, starring Charles Bronson, continues this neutrality, and in fact the film turned out to be one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen. There are a few changes here and there, but with a few exceptions they're all minor. Things like Paul's surname being changed from Benjamin to Kersey, and his job changing from an accountant to an architectural engineer(or something like that). I'm not really sure why the job changed, but perhaps it's because watching a montage of someone surveying property is (only) slightly more interesting than a montage of someone using a calculator.

The plot is still the same; Paul Bejamin's wife and daughter are attacked in the exact same manner described in the book, although the rape of Paul's daughter was new to the film. After his wife dies, Paul begins to see criminals everywhere, and eventually begins taking to the streets every night to stalk and kill muggers. The movie plays out more like an urban western than the book did, with Paul's trip to Arizona adding more than a dash of cowboy flavor(wild west shows and bull horns mounted on cars). The finale of the movie-with the cop who had been on the vigilante case telling him to move out of New York- carried with it the association with every western ever made where the sheriff told the outlaws to get out of town by sundown. Even a few of the scenes of Paul stalking muggers are played out as old fashioned duels at high noon. This idea was brought up in the book, but the movie takes it and runs with it. You could see this as the filmmakers condoning Paul's actions, but it would be more accurate to say this was an outward exhibition of how Paul sees himself. Paul never sees himself as a criminal, or as a man with maybe a few loose screws, he sees himself as Gary Cooper in High Noon. In a town full of frightened citizens, he's the only man willing to stand up and make an example of himself(and the criminals).

The movie is a pretty solid affair, and I enjoyed it well enough, but it still feels a little superficial. The novel was also light on discussion of ethics, but the movie removes almost all of those elements, creating a pretty standard revenge film. Much of the moral of this film, the feeling that we get that Paul's actions are repellent, is due to our own social programming, not anything the film itself brings up. Most of us assume violence is bad, and despite what we enjoy in movies, we recognize that such behavior in real life would be horrible, but the film doesn't make any such assumption. It doesn't go quite so far as to glamorize what Paul does, but it doesn't seem to think it's such a bad thing either.

Now, Death Wish was pretty neutral, and so was the film. Death Sentence, the sequel to the original novel, was very clear about which side of the argument the author was on, and Death Wish 2, while not based on the book, clarifies it's stance as well, albeit in the opposite direction. Death Wish 2 is plainly on Paul's side, and glorifies every single act of violence he perpetrates, inviting the audience to cheer along as he guns down gang member after gang member. The more I think about it, the more disgusting the movie seems, although I have to admit I enjoyed it when I watched it. This was probably due to the people I saw it with, and the fact that we were eating cheese steaks and laughing at the ridiculous elements of this film, and not actually due to any skill actually on the screen.

Five years after the events in the first film, Paul Kersey is living in Los Angeles with a new girlfriend, and his daughter is finally being released from the psychiatric institute she was sent to at the end of Death Wish. Apparently he found it very easy to stop roaming the streets and killing people, because Paul is no longer the vigilante he once was. But this is a sequel, and not only do we need violence, it needs to be bigger, bloodier, more disgusting than the last entry. And so on her first day out of the hospital, after a day of sailing and shopping with her father, Paul's daughter is kidnapped and raped by a gang led by a pre-Cowboy Curtis Laurence Fishburne. This is the second gang rape in the first 20 minutes of the film, and when viewed alongside the rape in the first film, sets up a pretty disgusting trend that I foresee continuing through the rest of the series. The rape in the first film was brief(yet no less hard to watch), and although unnecessary I could understand the filmmakers desire to make the attacks more horrific, to give Paul and his daughter more motivation for their individual reactions. In this film the violence against women is taken to extremely uncomfortable levels, and the rapes(there are a couple more to come) give this film an upsetting level of misogyny. It doesn't feel like the criminals are punishing women, it feels like the director is punishing women.

There's no act of violence in this movie that doesn't seem endorsed by the filmmakers. The rapes feature plenty of extended shots of bare breasts and asses, and carry with them an air of titillation, not disgust. Not only Paul's, but the gangs acts of violence are treated as exciting movie spectacle.

Up next:
I'll be taking a little break from the Death Wish films. I don't feel like watching them without my friends, and we can't get together that often. So next will be A Brand New World. I've finished the book, now all that remains is for me to write the review.

After that, Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which will probably be up by this weekend.

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