Killer Films

Why the new vigilante movies are a lot like the old vigilante movies.

Jodie Foster in The Brave One

Revenge: Where would the movies be without it? The hero’s quest for personal justice has fueled plenty of high drama and even more lowbrow cinema. This is especially true of 1970s vigilante films. In these movies, an individual at odds with “the system” does what that system cannot: take revenge on specific criminals or crime in general for the wrongs done to him (occasionally her), his family, his community. This means mustering rage and weaponry, from socks stuffed with quarters to .32 revolvers to grenade launchers (and that’s just in the Death Wish series). In recent years, a similar body of films has emerged. This trend includes modern day B-movies ( A Man Apart, Four Brothers), comic-book adaptations ( The Punisher, Batman Begins), remakes ( Man on Fire, Walking Tall), and even Oscar-bait ( Munich). Reaching a brutal climax in the last few weeks with the releases of Death Sentence and The Brave One, this cycle proves that vengeance is back with, well, a vengeance, and that the two eras parallel each other like twin dark alleys in the American imagination.

The “classic” vigilante films—a roster that includes Billy Jack, Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, Death Wish, and Taxi Driver—were made possible when Hollywood’s self-censorship became less stringent. Following Bonnie and Clyde’s release in 1967, violence became more graphic, more extreme, and, in a word, more. (Martin Scorsese was forced to desaturate the colors of Taxi Driver’s rampage to avoid an X rating, but the title character of The Exterminator, a 1980 film that Roger Ebert calls “a small, unclean exercise in shame,” did get to feed a villain to an industrial meat grinder.)

These films bubbled up from the country’s toxic domestic scene: inflation, an energy crisis, the implosion of a presidency, and rising crime rates. “There was a sense that things were falling apart,” says criminologist Gregg Barak. Before Richard Nixon’s presidency, Barak argues, “There was always the notion that you could reform someone …” but with the upheavals of the 1960s and the unease of the 1970s, many felt “we had gone too far in liberalizing things.” Hence the public’s enthusiasm for Nixon’s “law and order” campaign platform, and later, for Hollywood’s vigilante daydreams.

The seminal vigilante film of the era—or any era—is Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), based on Brian Garfield’s novel. The movie immortalized Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an everyman who responds to the brutalization of his wife and daughter by obsessively smiting muggers and other “freaks” (as the credits bill his family’s attackers). This is far from where Kersey began: a progressive raised to hate guns, and a wartime conscientious objector. Of course, Kersey’s liberalism exists only so it can be corrected later. Liberals are similarly “reformed” in the new Jodie Foster movie, The Brave One, as well as in Vigilante, Death Wish 3, and The Enforcer, in which a cop’s widow makes the point, “It’s a war, isn’t it? I guess I never really understood that.”

This war is between the civilized and the savage—a conflict drawn from the Western. The period’s vigilante films actually uphold the Western mythos more reliably than its Westerns do. The Wild Bunch, Ulzana’s Raid, and others depict the Western as morally confused, even bankrupt. Meanwhile, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and similar action yarns ultimately embrace the gunfighter’s moral clarity.

This is why Garfield denounced the film version of Death Wish. The novel’s point, he insists, is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy, but if it were ever acted upon, the real violence would be to society and to the soul. (Garfield even petitioned the FCC to force CBS to either cancel a broadcast of Death Wish or to strongly warn viewers about the film’s violence.) In 1975, he published a sequel, Death Sentence, as “penance” for the film, giving his characters pointed—and lengthy—anti-vigilante speeches. Although the current film version of Death Sentence shares nothing with the book but the title, Garfield seems satisfied: “After thirty-five years, they finally got it right.”

In fairness, Death Wish is somewhat more ambiguous than many recognized in 1974. Kersey’s obsessions shuttle him toward self-destruction—which, of course, they must. To dramatize obsession is to implicitly or explicitly critique it (although this was probably lost on the moviegoers who Garfield recalls shouting, “Kill that mother!”). The Brave One and Death Sentence have inherited this ambivalence, albeit unequally. There is no surprise here. After all, one is directed by the filmmaker of The Crying Game, while the other is by the guy who did Saw.

In Death Sentence, Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a business executive and suburbanite. After the chance killing of Nick’s son, the bereaved father and the gang avenge themselves on each other with escalating stakes. For his final act of retribution, Nick goes on a Taxi Driver-inspired rampage in the gang’s lair (an abandoned mental hospital where literally, and now figuratively, the hope of regaining sanity is gone). Also bearing Taxi Driver’s influence is Nick’s battle preparation: a ritualistic montage in which he masters his arsenal, shaves his head, and purifies himself with pain.

This season’s other vigilante film, The Brave One, has a more literal connection to Taxi Driver: Jodie Foster, for whom Travis Bickle was not only a savior, but also, it turns out, a mentor. But an even better referent is Death Wish. Like the attack on Paul Kersey’s family (and later Nick Hume’s), the attack on Foster’s Erica Bain is a chance one that hardens a bleeding heart. The liberal-turned-gunslinger arc further cements The Brave One as another throwback to 1970s vigilante lore.

At the same time, Erica dedicates much of her vigilantism to shooting random predators, which puts the film somewhat out of step with the current cycle. Today, we are less afraid of the random punk than we are of the sleeper cell. Shadowy networks and evil syndicates are the new muggers and rapists, as seen in a number of films—Batman Begins, Munich, Man on Fire, The Punisher,and Death Sentence among them. In fact, Brian Garfield says that the most outdated aspect of his novel Death Sentence—and hence one of the first things to be jettisoned in adapting it—was the prevalence of muggers. This explains the film’s violent methamphetamine outfit, a decidedly more “today” villain.

Warner Bros. has positioned The Brave One as a serious-minded drama. Death Sentence, a more straightforward genre piece, is also surprisingly sober. Still, neither film is as ambivalent as Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Despite Munich’s exhaustive running time (and the lead assassin being recruited because he is not “a sabra Charles Bronson”), the film reduces the vigilante ethos to its troubled core. While the film is ostensibly a period piece chronicling the revenge Israel exacted for the 1972 killings of its Olympic athletes, many saw Munich’s use of Israel’s 30-year-old vendetta as a stand-in for today’s “war on terror.” But Munich (nominated for five Academy Awards) can also be seen as continuing a dialogue begun in Death Wish (nominated for none). When Bronson asks, “What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it?” his son-in-law replies, “Civilized.” Thirty years later, the exchange continues, but it’s not Bronson who answers, it’s Golda Meir: “Some people say we can’t afford to be civilized.”

It’s easy to imagine that in a post-9/11 America, vengeance occupies more of our national imagination than before. Maybe it does. But today’s vigilante movies channel many of the same frustrations that their predecessors did. Today, as in the ‘70s, America faces economic, environmental, and energy-related crises. In both generations, Americans wrestle with political powerlessness, on fronts ranging from their own health care to the country’s role on the global stage. (America’s invasion of Iraq, unsanctioned by the U.N. and launched by a president happy to be seen as a “cowboy”—or more accurately, a gunfighter—could be seen as a vigilante war.) And both generations of Americans watch as the executive branch flouts its accountability to the public and to the law, proves unable to “win” an increasingly unpopular war, and refuses to acknowledge the reality of the war’s downward spiral.

Fundamentally, both eras also share an anxiety about the government’s ability to keep them safe. As Barak notes, vigilante fantasies of the 1970s stemmed less from actual crime than from the feeling that the criminal justice system was ineffective. Although crime rates fell steadily between 1994 and 2005, we still face a similar unease about trusting our safety to “the system.” New Orleans is a perfect example. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it was not the storm but the design of the levees and FEMA’s response that caused so much destruction and misery. This is the one-two punch we now fear: the calamity, and then the realization that help from our institutions is not on the way.

Enter the vigilante. In a pop culture of tumultuous times, he is a steadying presence, a recognizable archetype. At such moments, vigilante movies offer gut-level reassurance, as if saying, “There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that we lost habeas corpus; the good news is that the Twinkie defense also just became moot.” In the case of The Brave One, this is why the film’s most important question is not the one it seems to pose most often: “What is Erica becoming?” Instead, the film’s most important question is raised just once, and by a minor character. Against the jungle of a park in the middle of the night, a girl Erica has freed from a particularly scummy tormentor awakens from a daze to ask the question we all could ask:

“Is this still America?”

Is it ever.