"What difference does it make what you call it?"
Spoiler Alert, people tend to ruin everything.
An author's inspiration can come from anywhere. E.B. White wanted to write a novel about saving a pig's life, but didn't have a hero in mind. Then he remembered the intricate web spun in his house. A dinner debate birthed The Handmaid's Tale. Walking a wooden bridge in cowboy boots, Stephen King half-expected to hear a troll call out. Three years later, he began work on It.
Brian Garfield didn't respond well when seldom-do-well's slashed the top of his convertible. He stewed, and wondered what it would be like to find those pricks and release some righteous rage. Then, his wife had her purse snatched. Again, Garfield entered a world of red-hot revenge. He would never act out; truthfully, his own bloodthirst repulsed him. Also he was able to separate his emotional response from his intellectual one, realizing that jeopardizing his freedom (at best) and his soul (at worst) would be foolish.
A year later, Garfield wrote a novel about a man with no such compunction. Middle-aged CPA Paul Benjamin is a liberal citizen with thinning red hair and thickening pale paunch. Problems that go from major to minuscule when his son-in-law Jack calls with damn near the worst imaginable news: his wife and daughter are in the hospital, having been assaulted during a break-in at the Benjamin apartment in Manhattan by a trio of drug-addled youths. The wait is interminable; at last, a doctor appears, with the actual worst imaginable news: Paul's wife has succumbed to her injuries.
Paul stays a spell with his daughter and her husband in their apartment, although more accurately it's time spent with the husband, since the poor young woman is still in the first phase of her descent into a trauma-induced depression that will end with her institutionalization. Paul and Jack talk about the dangers of city life and the promise of country life. Jack's all for relocation, but Paul thinks that's quitter talk. They talk about drugs and druggies, and Paul makes a lubeless point about military spending.
Other people pop up to make various points. Friends, co-workers and complete strangers bemoan the radical uprising in the country, the residue of the previous decade, the long-hairs and commies decrying the Establishment, the welfare state turning America into a shadow of its formerly great self. Decent people are under siege. The cops aren't doing enough. The politicians aren't doing enough. "Somebody's got to give a damn."
Paul starts paying attention to the people on the streets. He decides maybe 5% of them deserve life. (He then chastises himself.) So many of them are young. So many of them obviously under the influence of illicit drugs. Paul et uxorem would have looked at those kids and felt that all they needed to right their course was quality time in the community--volunteering for soup kitchens, signing up for sports leagues, joining library book clubs. Widower Paul notices his liberal ideals aren't holding up so well under harsh light.
He sees a convertible with the roof slashed and mentally upbraids the owner for parking his vehicle there and expecting no repercussions. Then, again, he calls himself to task--repercussions for what? Parking? What's a guy supposed to do, attach hot air balloons to his car? You know the most ardent thief would have a BB gun at the ready to bring that bitch down, anyway.
The streets are overrun with junkies and thieves blowing raspberries at the law-abiding. What can the decent folks do? Depend on the justice system? Submit to the fear? Must every worst-case what-if be given greater weight than the more likely scenarios?
Paul loads a sock with a roll of quarters and actually gets to use it walking home from a bar. The makeshift weapon fails to connect, but succeeds in scaring the kid off. The next day, Paul feels Tony. He can't wipe the silly smile off his freckled face. It's as if he got laid the night before, but rather than burying himself over and over in a breathtaking woman with firm breasts and firmer thighs, he swung a sock full of coins at a baby robber.
The bliss dissipates. Life in the city is gutting harder--nightmares, insomnia. Paul vacillates--move (run) or stay (fight)? The cops have no leads. His daughter's condition is steadily declining. So when the firm sends Paul out to Arizona for a huge job, he welcomes the temporary change of scenery. He drinks, he fucks, he buys a gun. He returns to the city determined to prevent a repeat. His worst fears and prejudices are no longer drowned out by a sensible voice reminding him that other prisoners will fight for the right to make him their bitch.
Paranoia becomes the new normal. Reveries of revenge poison his mind, sending him out into the streets at night, where he takes out a twitchy would-be mugger clearly more eager to contaminate his own blood than spill anyone else's. The Daily News reports on the death of a 24-year-old parolee fresh off a stint in prison for grand larceny. A bad egg, a crap apple.
The next night, Paul's in Times Square. Hookers, looky-loos, fruits, basket cases--death chasers one and all. Cops are present, yet absent. That's fine. Paul doesn't need them. Two aspiring car thieves find that out. Then, a home invader.
The police begin taking notice. The media dubs him "The Vigilante Killer." Paul is mildly perturbed at some things he reads. He's no psycho; he's got a good mind. A righteous man of action in a city of gum-bumpers and thumb-suckers. The public, hell even some cops, are saluting the guy for a job well done.
I worried about a twist where the cops arrest Paul while remaining utterly clueless as to the identities of the real bad guys who murdered his wife. Sure enough, Paul runs into a cop just after executing three destructive teenagers. He says nothing, just awaits arrest. But the cop merely turns around.
When I saw the first page contained both "bibulous" and "torpid," my nose hairs tingled. False alarm. Garfield's writing isn't lurid. Only the first kill is graphically depicted. No blood gushing, no guts protruding. The prose is rather detached--like Paul himself. While in the crapper at a party, Paul reads a magazine article about his killing spree. Quoted at length is a big-deal psychiatrist from Columbia Medical, who provides insights about the make-up and motivations of the shooter. Unsatisfied to summarize, Garfield gives us the whole thing, and while the piece is over-long, it avoids being over-written. No brainless straw men, no heartless witches, but plenty of impotent gestures.
Death Wish is a hell of a story, told damn well, that zips along dragonfly-style. The New York City it describes is a gross gumbo that will taste utterly foreign to anyone who hadn't visited prior to the year 2000, but the relevance of the questions it poses has not gone anywhere. What is the proper way for a victim of violence to process their experience? Is there such a thing as a wrong reaction? When justice fails, do citizens have a responsibility to dispense the punishment due?
Fresh off a vacay with the wife-piece in Honolulu, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to New York City. The same day he admits to his co-worker Sam that his "heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged," three no-goodniks (Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead hat, Billy Corgan entering menopause, and Horshack in a red bandana) barge into his apartment and violate his adult daughter after mortally beating his wife.
Paul's devastation is barely containable. Walking at night does no good. He's spooked by Craig Robinson's uncle lighting a match, fer Chrissake. A would-be mugger gets a loaded sock to the noggin. Then Paul goes home and gets all dramatic. At least he didn't yell, but still, must be nice to just treat socks so impudently.
His bosses send him out to work on a project in Arizona. While out West, Paul hooks up with good ol' boy and future Paul Hewson fashion influence Ames Jainchill. The men watch a re-enactment of frontier justice doled out by a brave lone gunman, we watch a survey montage (Ack-shawn! *Alicia Bridges voice*), then Ames takes the city boy to a shooting range, since Tucson is "gun country," where citizens don't hesitate to raise arms to protect their own. Paul tells Ames about growing up with firearms, right up until his father was accidentally killed by a fellow hunter. Charmed, the cowboy gifts the architect with a .32 Colt revolver.
Boom! Down goes one mugger. Paul needs more. Three men robbing an older gentleman? Shit yeah, that hits the spot. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Frank Zappa and a Jewish greaser on the subway? Catch these bullets!
Detective Ochoa is on the case. He orders the squad to check the past three months of murders, suspecting as he does a motive of revenge. Soon, he narrows in on Paul Kersey, but funny thing; the District Attorney doesn't want the vigilante arrested. Street crime has dropped dramatically since Paul's started baiting the blob fish, but the public can't know that. The shooter must be stopped, however, lest copycats proliferate and send the city spiraling into anarchy. Still, arresting him isn't the solution either, since the NYPD isn't in the martyr-making business.
Ochoa and the D.A. agree, encouraging the killer to relocate is the only truly beneficial course of action. When Paul winds up in the hospital after another confrontation with muggers, Ochoa visits him, bearing the wounded man's Colt--and a proposition. If Paul agrees to skip town, Ochoa will give the gun a river burial. Paul indeed hauls ass to Lollapalooza (2006), where he almost instantly spots hoodlums harassing a poor lady. The film ends with the image of Charles Bronson's squinty smile as he gives the hooligans a gun finger. The message is clear: there's a new chef in the kitchen, and he's serving up hot-buttered bullets. Bon appetit, bitches.
Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott were both considered for the Paul Kersey role. Each man would have been a closer fit to the Paul presented in the novel. Director Winner wound up casting his chum Charles Bronson. It's hilarious that the choice of Bronson meant Paul's occupation needed changed. "No one will buy bad-ass Bronson as an accountant!" Truth, but he doesn't make a credible architect either! So absurd. Still, he was the right choice for a classic tough guy devoid of nuance. To keep America from eating himself, he needs simply to shuffle from one spot to the next, firing a few bullets. Return home, rinse hands, repeat.
My favorite character in the film is NYC, portrayed as all skin, no pudding, a place where crime is taken for granted and life has been devalued. My least favorite character is director Michael Winner, whose work is sloppy and rushed, featuring a wealth of overacting and empty symbolism. Brian Garfield hated the film, calling it "incendiary," and even writing a sequel (Death Sentence) in response. He never intended for vigilantism to be celebrated, yet the film's message of righteous street justice doled out by a one-man army resonated with audiences nationwide. He might be wrong, but Paul Kersey is rising up against an insidious enemy, refusing to stay scared, daring to resist. It's easy to cheer a guy like that; just shut off your brain and embrace your inner fascist.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
First thing--"There's one answer I intend to demand" is not in the film? Whaaaaa?
Director Michael Winner did not take Brian Garfield's criticisms well, calling the author an "idiot," and reminding everyone that the novel Death Wish didn't precisely set the bestseller lists ablaze. I wonder if there's a higher percentage of assholes among people with the last name "Winner."
The book is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. The movie is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. Every major incident of the novel made the script. Despite these similarities, the overarching messages of each work could not be more different. Garfield's book says what could happen. Winner's film says what should happen.
For all the grit and suspense, Death Wish on the screen is, alas, an oversimplified answer to a disturbingly complex question. Wish fulfillment at its most harmless, violence porn at its bleakest. (Even though the ER is far too bright, spotless and lacking in wounded freaks for my personal taste.)
Since subtlety is for European films, Death Wish shows us the assault on the Kersey women, indulging in graphic violence to inflame audience passions--in particular, the rape of Paul's daughter is filmed with the delicacy of an anvil crashing onto a butterfly (and can I just say how wonderful it always makes me feel, seeing a woman's vulnerability exploited). "Unsettling" doesn't suffice. The sight of spray can-wielding Horshack lazily tagging the apartment (and its occupants) is simultaneously cheesy and disturbing, and the sound of Jughead Jeff wailing about "rich cunts" threatens even the stingiest risibility.
And then they start tearing the clothes off of the daughter. Cue my overwhelming discomfort. Tonal shifts rarely come more abruptly--or honestly. Although I credit the book with not providing a play-by-play of its instigating incident (since the point is not what happened to Paul, but rather his reaction), and although I resent the proclivity of films to prey on viewers' baser instincts, I can't deny that the scenario plays out believably on screen. Doesn't mean I like it all that tough, or want to ever see it again, or that I don't feel shame at my own simplistic reactions.
The most heartbreaking aspect of the entire story probably flew over most heads: both father and daughter wind up devoid of feeling. She retreats, he reloads. The heart-rending sequence in the hospital wasn't taken from the book, but it's an effective, atypically understated summation of the agonizing guilt Paul feels in having lost both the women in his life to senseless violence.
Paul Kersey is a man struggling with deeply repressed feelings. Paul Benjamin gives the distinct impression that he could neither correctly spell the word "repression" or tell you its definition. There is no time set aside for soul-searching. The magazine article from the book may have been a few paragraphs overweight, but it was also thoughtful. As in, full of thoughts. The movie has but one thought: EAT LEAD. (I would have kept the final kill of the book, which also centers on a subway car, but makes Paul seem like less of a bad ass.)
The impression I got while reading was the Benjamins were a couple that liked one another. Theirs was not a marriage of tolerance, nor was it one of romantic ardor. You could say Paul was avenging the loss of a reliable friend/sex partner rather than the loss of his great love. Winner, wanting audiences to care, pushed to have spousal interaction in the movie, which amounted to taking photos and an aborted quickie.
Finally, Death Wish comes down to the battle of the absurd endings. Book or movie, Paul gets off. But the book gives the vibe he might go entirely off the rails. In the movie, we're blatantly told that the vigilante killer will live on. And he did! Four goddamn sequels, each steadily shittier than the last. Violence has consequences and ramifications. The police should enforce the law, judges and juries should impose the sentences. If you think both of those preceding sentences are sheer bologna, you will love most if not all of the Death Wish series.
The subway shooting (added for the film) is impossible for me to watch without remembering the Bernhard Goetz shootings in 1984. Hell, the entire film is hard to finish without thinking of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Mind you, the main character in both incarnations of Death Wish is closer to the meek, glass-spined Goetz than the reprehensible murderer George Zimmerman.
I actually made it through the book without once visualizing Bronson. I am wild proud of me.
MIND THE GAP
The American legal system is a running joke. Prisons are overcrowded and police are underqualified.
So what can be done? The film offers no other alternatives to address the escalating crime rate. Nothing about increased funding to schools, or improved mental health care, or the radical idea of society as a whole deciding to not place such a premium on the act of acquisition.
The idea of vigilantism is a relatable one to most people. The sting of revenge is an acute sensation. The demands of civilization keep the yearning at bay. Understanding someone's actions does not mean excusing them, or refusing to punish them as the law dictates. Killing the person who totaled your car is basically cheating on your lovely and loving spouse of fifteen years with someone younger and shapelier. Of course it would be a fun thing to do. But the guilt would eat away at your soul. Not all people feel that way, though. People who misunderstand the First Amendment on a daily basis. People who have the Second Amendment tattooed on their body. People who consider meatless lasagna a deportable offense. They don't want to hear sob stories about systemic oppression. Or anything that challenges their assumptions.
"THE LIBERAL MEDIA HATES DEATH WISH, BUT THE COMMON EVERYDAY RED-BLOODED FREEDOM-LOVING AMERICAN LOVES IT! DEATH WISH IS A WAKE-UP CALL! STOP SHRUGGING AND START SHOOTING!"
Paul Benjamin/Kersey. Hero. American. Selfish killer misunderstood as the last bastion of the Old West gunslinger. Defender of his fellow man. His actions are drastic, but he's one of the good guys. Brutal means to reach a beautiful end. He talks softly and carries a big-enough stick. He's unmoored. He's pathetic.
Yet even in this the 21st century, imbecilic politicians evoke the film to remind us of a time when the country was well and truly great. Ignore the fact that he shoots some of these criminals in the back, either as they're running away or writhing in pain.
He's not a hero. He's a serial killer. He is America's dying soul.
In 1972, when Death Wish was published, New York City clocked 2,026 homicides. In 2015, the number had fallen to 355. The Brannan Center for Justice named the Big Apple the safest of America's thirty largest cities that same year. The reasons include exceptionally precise policing and neighborhood organizations working independently to "clean up" the city. The reasons do not include a lunatic going to the worst areas under cover of darkness, begging to be approached by desperate detritus so he has an excuse to fire his gun and feel like a macho man.
Pretty bold of those shitbags to break-in, really. How could they be certain that the women would be the only occupants? What if there'd been some big brother built like a barrel just hanging out watching TV? Greed truly narrows the focus and destroys the brain cells.
Christopher Guest looks as comfy in a cop uniform as I do in turtleneck sweaters.
Brian Garfield is the author of over sixty novels, nineteen of which have been made into films. Death Wish is the only one I ever even thought about reviewing.
Remember when "bleeding-heart liberal" was the preferred takedown? Instead of "libtard"? Relatively good times!
"What this city needs is more cops than people." Where do I even begin? Damnit, movie!
Imagine if Paul had gone straight to the bar after work. He'd have missed that bigoted crap-sack and, as a result, his own admission that the other man's rantings, while crude, had a few kernels of truth in them. Damnit, book!
Why the backstory in the movie? To explain his marksmanship?
I'd absolutely watch a movie about Alma Lee Brown.
No, that isn't Denzel Washington getting gunned down by Charles Bronson. The man himself squashed that persistent rumor last year.
One of Mayes's original screenplays ended with Paul following the thugs who took out his wife and dying at their hands. Inspector Ochoa takes Paul's revolver and contemplates assuming the vigilante role in his honor. An ending downright Wiggumian in its stupidity. A good part of what I like about the Death Wish story is that the main character doesn't get justice. Of all the baddies he blasts, none actually sat foot in his apartment. None of them terrorized his loved ones while he was in his office trying to mollify a rich jerk. No matter how many people he gunned down, how bad they were or how good it felt, justice was not truly done.