Saturday, May 3, 2014

Instant Action: Death Wish (1974)

To wish for death, or not to wish for death, that is the question!

Screenplay By: Wendell Mayes
Directed By: Michael Winner

There are a couple of very important elements at play in Death Wish. Firstly, Paul Kersey is not on a revenge fueled ride from the get-go. The film takes its time to get him to the point where he is willing to fight back, and more specifically to pull the trigger on someone's life. We spend time with Paul, we get to know what makes him tick and how much the changes in his life are effecting him. This all leads to the most important moment of the film, when Paul finally fights back against a thug. He commits the act of pulling the trigger and what follows is different from most revenge films. Paul feels remorse, maybe not for the person he has killed but for the person he is becoming. Paul returns to his house and throws up, he's so torn up over what he has done that his own body is rebelling against him.

The two elements discussed above aren't the only elements that pull Death Wish away from the revenge pack. I was very impressed with the fact that the thugs who accosted Kersey's daughter and killed his wife are never seen again in the film. Were Death Wish made today chances are that the film would have ended with Kersey finally confronting the thugs who set him on his murderous path. Death Wish isn't the story of those thugs, it's the story of Paul Kersey and that's why it's important that he not meet up with those thugs again. Sure, Death Wish is a fantasy, but it's not the happy ending where everything is tied into a neat bow type of fantasy. Had Paul met up with the men who changed his life that would have created too neat of an ending and taken away from the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the film.

Charles Bronson is especially worth talking about when it comes to Death Wish. I've never pegged Mr. Bronson as a terrific actor, and I'm still not sure if he has the most range. However, range is not what is needed for the role of Paul Kersey. Mr. Bronson plays the role super quiet, and that makes sense as he is the representation of the silenced and humiliated everyman versus the loud thugs. I don't know what more anyone could want from Mr. Bronson as an actor, his performance as Paul Kersey is pitch perfect. He may not be the world's greatest thespian, but after Death Wish I'm much more convinced that Charles Bronson is an actor who knows how to play to his strengths.

It's tempting to call Death Wish a satisfying film. While such a label would fit I'm not sure if it's actually an apt description. Yes, there is some joy to be had in watching thugs be gunned down. There's plenty of joy to be taken from the filmmaking craft on display from Michael Winner. That being said, Death Wish isn't the sort of revenge tale that is about good versus evil. Paul resorts to evil to fight evil, a decision that makes sense but is still troublesome. Death Wish is gloriously ambiguous in the way it handles the social problem of vigilantism. It's easy to make a case for Paul's actions being justified, but it's just as easy to make a case for Paul's actions being over the line.

I wasn't sure what to expect going into Death Wish. I'm happy to report that the film was a smashing success. Mr. Winner's film gave me plenty to think about and plenty of filmic elements to rejoice over. Death Wish finds the right middle ground between drama and revenge tale. Most importantly Death Wish never rushes, it takes the time to establish its characters and its world. The tempo and the tone of Death Wish is spot on throughout, and that's why it remains a fine piece of action cinema all these years later.



Bill Thompson

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