The problem with viewing an Eli Roth film through an ideological lens is that I’ve never been fully convinced of the worth of such a reading. My scepticism began after the French publication Le Monde named Hostel one of the best films of 2006, lauding its scathing critique of American consumerism. If that raises your eyebrows, I’m right there with you, as the central theme of Roth’s sophomore effort seemed to be finding new and interesting ways to present graphic injury detail and gore. I don’t think it’s quite sophisticated enough to serve as a critique of anything.
Similarly, Roth’s The Green Inferno met with critical condemnation, not only for its purported rebuke of ‘slacktivism,’ but also for its portrayal of indigenous peoples as cannibals. But as with Roth’s earlier films, any hint of a theme, political or otherwise, is cursory at best. His plot is just an excuse to get his cast into danger as quickly as possible, so he may dispatch them violently amid buckets and buckets of fake blood.
And now we have his latest, Death Wish, a remake of the Michael Winner, er, ‘classic,’ I guess. Bruce Willis takes on the role of Paul Kersey, who has transformed from Charles Bronson’s architect to a surgeon. Kersey is a benign, non-confrontational type—that is, until his wife is brutally murdered during a failed robbery attempt, which leaves his daughter in a coma. The police are frustratingly slow to find leads for the case, so Kersey begins the hunt for the perps himself. Sound familiar? C’mon—if the studio had released Death Wish in January, Liam Neeson would probably be in the lead role. Because Kersey, being a surgeon, has a particular set of skills…
When viewing Death Wish in the context of the rest of Eli Roth’s filmography, it again seems to me as though attempting to mine any political commentary is entirely beside the point. The plot is, as so many of Roth’s are, basically en excuse to kill a bunch of people. But, and I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, Roth improves upon Winner’s film in two important ways. First of all, the wife and daughter characters are actual people this time. The earlier film painted them as weak playthings, and the audience was invited to gawk at them even as they were being tortured and sexually abused. Well here, they fight back, and there’s barely a hint of the exploitative sexuality that helped make the earlier film so controversial.
Secondly, once Bronson’s Kersey got a taste for vigilante justice, he pretty much just wandered around his city looking for random wrongs to right. Willis’s Kersey is much more single-minded: he wants to find the people who harmed his family, because the police seem incapable of doing so. Beyond a few feeble, extraneous attempts at fighting crime, this pursuit is his whole m.o. If anything, this should make Roth’s Death Wish far more ideologically palatable than Winner’s version, because his Kersey is even less of a rampaging übermensch.
Most incredible, Eli Roth shows what, for him, might be termed ‘restraint.’ The voluminous guts and brains from his earlier works of torture-porn are here relegated to maybe two or three (mercifully brief) shots. Oh, don’t get me wrong—there’s an awful lot of blood. But Roth tones down the graphic gore; even the torture scene is practically kid-friendly when compared to either of the Hostel movies.
But let’s get back to Death Wish’s presumed politics. Is it really any different than most of the highest-grossing films of any given year? The only difference between Paul Kersey and Bruce Wayne is that one is a billionaire. Wayne can afford the batsuit, batmobile, batwing, utility belt… He has inexhaustible resources to enforce his particular brand of vigilante justice. Kersey is wealthy, but nowhere near that wealthy, and the only thing he can reasonably afford is a gun. So that’s what he uses.
What’s the difference between Kersey and, say Peter Parker? (Despite a bit of an age difference.) A radioactive spider didn’t bite Kersey. His superpower isn’t spewing sticky white webs from his wrists—it’s marksmanship. I’m sympathetic to the argument that the superhero ethos is generally fantastical enough to separate it from reality (though that may be somewhat undermined by the current trend of realistic, gritty reboots). But the philosophical bones are the same: society’s safety structures are crumbling, and require An Exceptional Being to make things right. Shall we now reevaluate The Dark Knight? (That’s not rhetorical. As someone who doesn’t much care for that film outside Ledger’s admittedly legendary performance, I’m all for it!)
I really shouldn’t have to do this, but for some reason I feel compelled to reveal my identity-based bona fides. So here goes: I’m a liberal. I despise American gun culture, and find most Republican’s view of America as some kind of semi-lawless Wild West to be painfully stupid, as well as repugnant. That said, Death Wish is a pretty harmless fantasy that has the same origin-story bones as Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, or any other Superhero Fighting Bad Guys In An Extrajudicial Manner. It’s slickly made, passably entertaining, and about as likely to incite violence as Kill Bill. It’s certainly no masterpiece, so can we stop pulling our hair out about it, please?