Friday, April 22, 2005

The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out

At long last I managed to catch Death Wish. This is perhaps the definitive vigilante flick. I've already caught Part III. That one inherited all the mechanics of Paul Kersey's actions (having now almost turned into a killing machine with a set of cold absolute morals), but somehow left the heart and soul waiting at the train station. This one provides all the reasons that should make it a classic. Having read enough about the series already, there weren't too many surprises in this story about a liberal architect (a development engineer for the Blue Ridge Corporation) who begins to assume the role of a vigilante in the aftermath of the brutal attack on his wife and daughter that has left the former dead and the latter (devastatingly raped) in a pathetic mental state (a mix of catatonia, dementia praecox, and passive schizoid paranoia). There's the wonderful score from Herbie Hancock and some nice camera work.

As we follow the events (the tragic change in Kersey's otherwise peaceful life, Kersey slowly losing faith in the system, Kersey slowly turning into a hero for citizens living in daily fear), the film works its devices wonderfully. There are a lot of details packed into what might seem like a fairly average thriller filmed in a deadpan stripped-of-style fashion. Take the party where there's a lot of faux-intellectual talk typical of people who have only read about and never experienced the horrors of crime ("racial equality among muggers"). Take Kersey's first weapon: two pipes of quarters (each amounting to $20 in change) wrapped in a sock. There's no drastic jump to sophisticated weapons (you see more of that in Part III. Take Kersey's first "attack" (he lashes back at a mugger with this makeshift weapon): it plays out like a sudden (yet expected) response resulting from an adrenaline rush; when he gets home, his hands are shaking violently as he pours himself a drink; Kersey has done something that violates everything he has stood for; and then with mixed emotions of rage, shock and confusion, he swings the sock a few times until it rips open, scattering quarters everywhere. We have just witnessed the first stage of the transformation, and it has not been pretty. Shortly thereafter, when Kersey begins his mission of drawing the "scum" out and claims his first victim he returns home only to throw up.

By the time we get to Part III, Kersey has become more used to what he does; he has now become the "cool" vigilante, who might serve as fodder for the "life imitates art" crowd. It's probably when the series might have deserved more flak for glorifying violence (although I'd still argue in its favour simply because Bronson's performance manages to inject a strain of helplessness in his character, making him more of an unfortunate victim who doesn't quite enjoy what he does rather than a cool killing machine with a fine sense of armament). As Kersey graduates to becoming an inspiration for citizens to shed their fears and strike back, he also becomes a menace and a dangerous element as far as the police is concerned.

As if the film hadn't done enough to make the events more horrifying at a much deeper level, we have another seemingly innocuous sequence early on in the film that offers some counterpoint from another genre that is rife with vigilantes, the western: Kersey visits a phoney western town and witnesses a fake shootout staged for the benefit of the audience. The event concludes with the announcement "The Wild West lives again", an allusion to the classic way of getting justice and to the vigilante spirit, thus anticipating Kersey's own transformation.

Noticed a few movie posters at the gun club and the only one I could make out clearly was for a movie called Pirates on Horseback. For the others, I call out "Help!"

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