No film encapsulates the American post-Trump right wing quite so eloquently as Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish, which is undoubtedly the drabbest and most depressing action film I have seen in a long time. Orienting itself towards Republicans who want to think of themselves as centrists, rather than extremists, the film follows Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis), a Chicago emergency doctor who takes to the streets after the police fail to immediately apprehend the criminals responsible for breaking into his house, murdering his wife and sending his daughter into a coma. More immediately, Death Wish frequently plays as a spiritual sequel to Taken, if only because it’s the most unapologetic Republican film since Taken, although all the hallucinatory hyperbole of Liam Neeson’s performance is leached from this singularly dispiriting and humourless exercise, which goes through the motions with so little pleasure, and so little interest in the original film, that it often feels like watching the mindset of someone who voted for Trump out of rote Republican allegiance, which is arguably the most dangerous and depressing American political demographic of all.
Forty years on from the original, the mid-70s mugging panic has been replaced by a more specific anxiety about gun violence, but the film accepts – and embraces – all the Republican contradictions around this issue, conceding that the widespread availability of guns is the key problem, but also insisting that it is the solution to the problem as well. An earlier incarnation of the film reportedly featured a police officer who had never shot a gun confronted with the moral quandary over whether to become an armed vigilante to support his family, and something of the same whitewashing of police brutality, and the links between police brutality and gun violence, persists here as well. Opening with a black policeman being shot, the police force is consistently presented as being the key casualties of gun violence, while Roth takes care to pepper the force with just enough diversity to assure you that this isn’t an exercise in white panic. What the film can’t quite process – or perhaps simply isn’t interested in processing – is that the majority of American shooters are just the self-appointed vigilantes that films like Death Wish celebrated, meaning it’s inherently self-defeating to use vigilantism as a way of critiquing gun violence to start with.
Yet for the most part, Death Wish simply deals with those contradictions by retreating from the public sphere where their impact is most felt. Whereas the original film was acutely anxious about the status of public space, and the public sphere, the remake is more or less indifferent about gun violence on the streets, let alone police brutality. Instead, the streets here are beyond repair, or beyond interest, while public space tends to be framed as evil in and of itself. With public space removed as a contested zone, Death Wish fixes all its anxiety on the sanctity of suburbia, and the invasion of suburban space – an anxiety that was starting to become a focus in the later stages of the original saga, as a natural outgrowth of the shift in location to Los Angeles, but even then was handled in a far more hyperbolic and even self-parodic register than it is here. Compared to those genre flourishes, Roth’s version is positively chaste, suffused with a Republican arrogation of seriousness, and a Republican arrogation of pathos, that often moves away from action cinema altogether, replacing it with a diffuse and lugubrious elegy for the state of America that’s as idiotic as it is indifferent to its own complicity in precisely the scenarios and situations that it represents.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the depiction of the home invasion itself, which is entirely devoid of the perverse pleasure of the original, just as the assault on Kersey’s family is largely divested of any sexual motivation as well. Part of what made the 1974 film so powerful was the way in which it acknowledged this prospect – a suburban patriarch’s domain overrun by foreign and unruly pleasure – as the sum of all Republican fears, and the horizon of all Republican ambitions, producing a Republican response that was too hysterical and hallucinatory to ever quite be taken seriously. By contrast, the remake is so paranoid that it can’t even acknowledge this perverse kernel at the heart of its own pleasure, with the vigilantistic impulse actually coming from the heartland wisdom of Kersey’s father-in-law, rather than as an immediate or visceral response from Kersey himself. Rather than portray vigilantism as a desperate necessity to a desperate situation, Death Wish does something even more violent – it portrays vigilantism, and the right to bear arms, as a matter of common sense, burying all its most paranoid fears in a rationalist register that makes them seem even more violent, and inexplicable, whenever they emerge.
That drab common sense register also means that Death Wish doesn’t have much of a narrative trajectory, or an internal propulsion, compared to the original films. Most of it simply drifts with Kersey through the strange limbic state that settles after his wife’s death, in which he’s unable to go back to work, since it reminds him of her death, can’t go back home, since it reminds him of her death, but also can’t bear to spend too much time by his daughter’s comatose side either, since it reminds him of the mother she’s lost. With work, home and family cut off, Kersey is therefore forced to venture out into public space for the first time since his childhood, when he rode the Chicago El all night long in order to avoid his temperamental father. Yet returning to the outside world just confirms his suspicion that the crimes commited against his family didn’t simply emerge from the public sphere, but were coterminous with the public sphere itself, resulting in a vigilanstic trajectory in which it is that public sphere, rather than any one behavior or character, that needs to be destroyed.
For all the mildness and tastefulness of Death Wish, that’s a much more violent message than the original franchise, perhaps explaining why the violence, when it does come, is much more attuned to a horror film than an action film in its sadistic proliferation of gore. Whereas the original wanted to reset the relation between the private and public sphere, the reboot wants to eviscerate the public sphere altogether. Among other things, that means that Death Wish reserves a particular vitriol for the homeless, as well as a particular distrust for Lollapalooza and other musical and cultural festivals in which young people claim public space as their own. No surprise, then, that the one criminal who seems to take a real relish in the crime is also the criminal who straddles the divide between public and domestic space most eloquently; a valet that the Kerseys fleetingly encounter in a parking lot, and who then lures Kersey into one public zone after another, before forcing a showdown in a nightclub where he promises to “tell you what your wife’s last words were.”
Nevertheless, despite this criminal’s best efforts, Kersey does a pretty good job of erasing the public sphere around him as the film proceeds, until the train carriages where he spends most of his time grow increasingly abstract, fragmented and notional in their sense of spatial continuity. Meanwhile, his vigilantistic crimes attract nationwide attention, turning him into a folk hero, a meme icon, and the locus of digital “debate,” even as his motivations become more Republican-by-rote with each passing day, until he almost feels like a gaming avatar, so radically is he leached of any autonomy or accountability. No doubt, most of the people he protects are African-American and Hispanic, but he’s virtually always protecting them from each other, as the film subliminally but consistently posits gun ownership as a necessity for white folk in managing the ever-expanding catchment of black-on-black crime.
By the end of the film, virtually every social institution has been collapsed into, or collapsed by, Kersey’s vigilantistic imperative, including his own profession as doctor, and his Hippocratic Oath, which he gradually comes to see as entirely continuous with his calling. For all the time set in hospitals, the film quickly suggests that the only real problem with America’s public health system is that criminals are taking beds from proper patients instead of being left to die on the streets – a thesis that would be repulsive if it didn’t just feel so rote. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, neoliberal ideology doesn’t tend to involve false consciousness – doing something under mistaken premises – but a kind of heightened consciousness, in which the individual does preposterous things and makes untenable claims all the while knowing that they are preposterous and untenable. Something of that bad faith gesture percolates all the way throughout Death Wish too, as the last real bastion of Republican power – the capacity to entertain, if nothing else – is withheld from us even as the film also insists that we have to be more enraptured and attentive than ever before.
For all those reasons, there’s something profoundly inexorable about the film’s ending, which sees Kersey restaging the home invasion, but this time lacing his house with traps to catch the remaining burglars. In effect, Kersey becomes the invader of his own home, investing the invasion process with enough perverse pleasure in order to fuel his own response in turn. And, for a brief moment, we catch a glimpse of that older Republican conviction, as Kersey takes a maniac’s delight in setting up one sadistic pitfall after another, like a grown-up Macaulay Culkin still playing out the key scenes from Home Alone in his real life. But even that energy dissipates pretty quickly, much as the criminals are caught pretty easily, leaving the audience and Kersey in the same position – alone in a suburban house, and desperate to hallucinate some enormous threat coming from outside or inside, so long as it means never having to commit to anything outside the most rote thoughts and actions.