A few years ago my boss was really trying to get me to watch Dexter, but I just couldn't do it. The idea of a show about a serial killer who hunted other serial killers just sounded dumb to me - I mean, how many serial killers could there possibly be in one city at any one given time? And sure enough, when I broke down and gave he pilot a try it made me want to pull my hair out. The show kept acting as if it was asking deep moral questions - is it wrong to kill even if you are killing bad people? But that is not a deep question when the math is so straight forward: if Dexter has killed dozens of serial killers and each of those killers has only killed a few people then it is pretty clear who is a worse person.
But I will give Dexter this: it might have been glib about the way it treated it's protagonist's psychopathic tendencies, but it at least acknowledged that he wasn't automatically a good guy just because he was killing bad people. There are some a lot of stories that treat their anti-hero as if they were a straight hero without bothering to reckon with any of that moral arithmetic and that just doesn't work; it creates an awful disconnect between what we're seeing and what we in the audience know to be true.
Today I want to talk about two movies I've seen recently which portray their violent protagonists in opposite ways. The first movie is Death Wish 5: The Face of Death and it has no inkling that it's main character is actually a villain. As a result, it comes across as a pointless, gruesome and paranoid fantasia. The second movie is Rolling Thunder and it puts its main character in a situation that undeniably justifies his rage, but then it doesn't let him off the hook for indulging in his worst impulses. As a result, it comes across as a challenging piece of cinema even though it is (on the surface at least) a simple tale of a man who is merely righting an egregious wrong.
The first Death Wish was slightly hyperbolic, but it at least bothered to set up it's grim delusions in a semi-respectable manner. First of all it gave mild mannered architect Paul Kersey a legit motive for vengeance: some local thugs raped and killed her wife and daughter in his own apartment. And then it gave Kersey an excuse: the police caught the bag guys but then turned them free on a technicality. The movie asked: if the legal system isn't going to clean up the streets then who is? Even people that loathe violence would be able to understand why Kersey would answer that question with "me."
By the fifth Death Wish all those moral prerequisites had become after thoughts. In the first scene of the movie we see Paul arrive at a fashion show, and we quickly discover that he's there because he's dating the designer... Who happens to be the ex-wife of a mob boss. Now we are less than ten minutes in and already his behavior is raising some red flags. If you know that you have a history of Death Wishing people then you have to know that there is a very good chance that dating someone with mob ties is a bad idea. At this point he's just looking for an excuse to murder. As they say, fool me once shame on you; make me murder entire mafia clans five times, shame on me.
Naturally the fashion designer gets attacked by a mob hitman immediately after Paul proposes to her - and that's basically the last date we ever see them go on; she was just a convenient excuse to make him enraged again, and once she has served that purpose she becomes an afterthought. And his attempts to handle the situation the legal way are similarly half-assed this time around. There is no serious attempt to initiate the legal process, there is just a scene in a hallway where a cop asks him not to murder a bunch of people. Paul's response: “These people they steal, they murder, destroy people's lives – and they get away with it! They have alibis, money, lawyers, power – they have everything.” Please note that I didn't rearrange the order of the words in that sentence - the number one thing that Paul is mad the mobsters have is "alibis." In other words: the main thing that is ticking him off is that these guys that he wants to kill can prove that they are innocent.
Over the course of the movie Paul proceeds to go on the mother of all vengeance sprees, but it isn't even the sort of titillating violence that action movies trade in. He murders the various henchmen in ways that are cowardly, gross and perhaps worst of all uncinematic. He poisons one man with arsenic while he is eating at his mother's restaurant; he explodes another with a bomb that looks like a soccer ball; he smothers another with shrink wrap. There is nothing thrilling about watching a senior citizen commit these types of brutal crimes and the idea that someone thought an audience would enjoy that is kind of disgusting. The first Death Wish was making an argument that the system was broken because the court systems couldn't keeping pace with the criminals; Death Wish five is arguing that the system is broken because it won't let you murder people even though sometimes you just gotta murder people.
The fundamental problem of a film like Death Wish Five is that it takes place in a black and white world but vengeance is almost always a shades of grey endeavor. Even when your cause is completely righteous you have to reckon with the whole "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" thing which is always thorny, and you also have to acknowledge that the vengeance seeker is acting in a remarkably similar way to the people he is seeking to punish.
If you want to see a good example of a vengeance story told right then you should watch Rolling Thunder. This 70's exploitation film is about a man named Charles Rane who spent several years in a POW camp in Vietnam before being reunited with his family in Texas... Just in time to watch them be killed by some petty robbers who were looking for a collection of silver dollars he received when he received at his welcome home ceremony. The film doesn't shy away from giving a blood thirsty audience the red meat they want - Rolling Thunder depicts it's action scenes in a way that's meant to be titillating, and you are definitely supposed to be rooting for Rane as he stabs and shoots his way through the gang that did him wrong. However, the film does not shy away from the fact that Rane's thirst for violence says something unflattering about who he really is and that extra bit of character grit makes him a much more interesting protagonist.
Rolling Thunder was written by Paul Schrader, who is probably best known for writing Taxi Driver, and the movie has a lot of his narrative touchstones in it. Schrader was raised a hardcore Calvinist in the Midwest before he moved to Hollywood to get into movies and his religious upbringing feeds into most of his scripts. He is fascinated with examining the taboo things he's not supposed to want, but he's also repulsed by himself for being so interested in the darkness. In Taxi Driver this push-and-pull mostly focuses on sex, particularly in regards to Iris the teenage prostitute, but Rolling Thunder focuses almost exclusively on violence. The push and pull is not so much about Rane's murderous intention - the film basically co-signs on his Old Testament methods of problem solving - but rather on the fact that Rane gets pleasure from his vendetta. He is implicated in the fact that he could have solved this crime in a safer, easier way but he wanted to do it his way because he needed an outlet for his pent up frustration and anger. Rolling Thunder makes it clear that he might be in the right in this specific instance, but that doesn't mean that he isn't a sick man.
Again: this film is not asking truly deep questions about the nature of justice. Some of the characters question Rane's sanity because they know that he doesn't have to be putting himself at risk, but the audience never doubts his mission; we know that he's earned the right to end the lives of these reprehensible people. But there definitely are some moral quandaries peeking around the edge of the frame in Rolling Thunder and those seeds of doubt make it a much more compelling movie by raising the emotional stakes. It is unclear if we should root for Rane to survive the film's final shoot out or if he is too tragic of a figure to live; hell, it's not even clear if we should root for him to get into that shoot out or if we should root for him to get into therapy - and that uncertainty helps get you invested in following the story till the end. Where Death Wish Five is cookie-cutter and dumb Rolling Thunder is complex and thorny - and it is all the better for it,.
I understand the argument that movies - and action movies in particular - shouldn't have to be modeled on real world constraints. The fact that real violence is almost always ethically complicated doesn't necessarily mean that it always has to be depicted on-screen with subtlety and nuance. But the truth is that I think this type of street vengeance movie is different from your average action movie. After all, your average Joe is never going to have to save their city from a biological attack or stop an asteroid from hitting the Earth so there is no danger of those movies impacting the way people really act. But the small stakes and ostensibly real-world settings of these movies mean that they are different. The truth is that your average Joe could develop a Death Wish, and when they do it isn't pretty.
I don't want to spend too much time harping on George Zimmerman because discussing Trayvon Martin's shooting in great detail in this context would be tacky, but the point is that people tend to internalize the narratives they see in pop culture and then view the world through that lens. When George Zimmerman was first in the national spotlight some pundits tried to defend him as a Paul Kersey-type - someone who was just cleaning up the streets. After he got arrested again and again for his violent behavior that argument had to change - suddenly he was more like Charles Rane in that he was obviously a man who was giving in to his worst impulses because he was mentally ill. That's why it's important that films take the Rolling Thunder route and try to portray their characters complicated moral decisions as actually being complicated - that way even when dumb people conflate the fictional movies they've seen with what they're seeing on the news they still understand that they can't afford to simplify the situation, and that these issues cannot be reduced to being in black-and-white.
At the end of the day it is less about morality and more about practicality. That goes for the narrative argument I'm making - I think that characters are more interesting when they have conflicting motives and I think that movies are more interesting when they are open to questioning their character's decisions. But that also goes for the broader topic, too. Part of the reason why I prefer complicated movies like Rolling Thunder over simplified movies like Death Wish Five is because these characters actually impact the way real people think and I want people to get the message that vigilantes are not automatically heroes. Our society will be better off if we are automatically skeptical of every George Zimmerman that pops up in the news claiming that he was only trying to make the world a safer place when he shot his neighbor point blank in the chest. After all, there are no Dexters in this world coming to clean up our messes - we are in charge of making this right ourselves, and we have to make sure that we do it the right way. And I, for one, prefer it that way.
Winner: Death Wish 5: The Face of Death: The Cat
Winner: Rolling Thunder: Me