DEATH WISH, US, 2018. Starring Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Elizabeth Shue, Camilla Marrone, Dean Norris, Beau Knapp, Kimberly Elise, Len Cariou, Wendy Crewson. Directed by Eli Roth. 107 minutes. Rated R (High impact violence)
An urban vigilante story.
In fact, the original novel, Death Wish, by Brian Garfield was published in 1972. That was the year after the release of Dirty Harry, the film which made such an impact around the world about vigilante action. And the series was very popular from the 1970s into the 1980s. The film version of Death Wish appeared in 1974, starring Charles Bronson, very popular and producing three sequels into the 1980s.
There was always a lot of discussion about vigilante films. On the one hand, dreadful crimes committed against innocent victims. On the other hand, it is the rule of law and justice for retribution. And the point is always made that, when justice and law do not fulfil expectations, the vigilantes feel the right to take retribution into their own hands.
And there is further discussion about the effect of vigilante action in the mind and emotions, as well as moral judgement, of the vigilantes. Does violent retribution against injustice achieve the cathartic effect that might be hoped for? Or is the vigilante burdened by the consequences of violence in their own character?
And there is even further discussion about the effect of the vigilantes in the minds of the public. Do they cheer the person who is able to avenge injustice, ridding the world of evil perpetrators? In this film, the vigilante is praised as the Grim Reaper. And what of copycat vigilantes who can cause their own mayhem?
In fact, all of these questions are raised in the screenplay of this version of Death Wish, based on Brian Garfield’s novel, written by writer-director, Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team).
One immediate difference is that Paul Kersey, the Charles Bronson character of 1974 was an architect, and is now played by Bruce Willis as a surgeon, someone whose life is committed to healing. This is a very good role for Bruce Willis who appears these days, like Nicholas Cage, in a dime a dozen thrillers each year. His sympathetic wife is Elizabeth Shue. His daughter, about to go to college and full of enthusiasm, is played by Camilla Marrone.
One of the differences for Death Wish 1974 and Death Wish 2018 is the atmosphere of social media and communication technology. This time the robbers are able to photograph the address and details of their targets when they do valet servicing of cars. When the vigilantes go into action, bystanders are able to film everything on their phones. This all then goes on to the Internet instantly, seen by millions, taken up by the traditional media, print, radio and television.
Because the actors are strong, the initial tragedy seems even more devastating. Willis, portraying a good man, begins to burn interiorly, the police (portrayed sympathetically) are unable to get leads. The surgeon, time off from work, begins to track down various leads, making discoveries, going to the gun shops (again, another contemporary issue of US gun ownership and gun usage, availability of guns…).
While the initial burglary and killing is ugly, some of the sequences in the revenge are more than ugly and violent. Perhaps this is the director, Eli Roth, who began with horror films, including the Hostel series.
The other central character in the film is Paul Kersey’s brother, Frank, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, whom the police suspect and who then tries to reason with and support his brother.
And the final moral dilemma. What do authorities do when they discover the truth – arrest the perpetrator or allow for the understandable grief and let the perpetrator go free, to continue his work of healing?
Rialto Released March 8th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.