Exploiting the Archives: Scalding Hot Takes #9 Death Wish (2018)
Heading to the DeKalb Mall theater in beautiful Decatur, Georgia to see the latest Scalding Hot Take entry I was reminded yet again just how much I love the movie-going process. I always have. It’s an experience that has always been filled with a certain everyday magic ever since I was a little kid who found respite from an ugly everyday world by escaping constantly to a place where I could dream in the dark, forget my troubles and be just another movie lover.
I love every aspect of the process. I love looking up showtimes. I love texting the Lyft to ferry me from my home to my home away from home in the wonderfully depressing, two-thirds empty DeKalb mall. I love looking at the posters for upcoming movies. There’s so much diversity on display in the movie theater lobby. Some of the posters are for sequels to hit movies. But others are sequels to reboots of hit movies! But that’s not all. Still other posters are for reboots or adaptations of hit best-sellers like Ready Player One, the movie with all of the stuff people know in it!
Can you even imagine how exciting it’s gonna be to see Ready Player One with one of your “bros” and constantly be able to tap them on the shoulder and joyously exclaim, “I’m familiar with what this is referencing!” I am losing my shit right now imagining such a scenario. I am familiar with dozens of insanely popular things from the past and unless the internet is a goddamn liar I’m going to get to re-experience all of them anew in this can’t-miss blockbuster.
You know what movie you don't see enough of these days? The movie It's Complicated. Where are its sequels? Where are reboots? Nowhere, that's where. In conclusion, we, as a society, need to monetize the fuck out of the It's Complicated universe. For the children!
I love watching sneak previews, although what’s with all the stunts all of a sudden? And the car chases? And the super heroes? Yes, one superhero movie a year would be fine but there seem to be several every year, at least, and some of them seem kind of silly. Like I saw a preview for a movie involving the wisecracking superhero “Deadpool” straight-up obliterating the fourth wall and sassing the entire superhero genre and I’m not going to lie: my conception of reality felt a little assaulted.
It’s one thing for Deadpool to be a sass-mouth and make jokes, but to continually call attention to the inherent artificiality of filmmaking is just too much. It’s a little “punk rock” for my taste and I want my cinematic experience to be as smooth and devoid of upset as a Charlie Pride ballad, not some brazen provocation from a disrespectful creative hooligan.
Yes, the thing that consistently ruins the movie-going experience are movies themselves. That’s particularly true of today’s abomination, a remake of the iconic 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish. Bruce Willis’ performance as Dr. Paul Kersey, a good doctor pushed to do some very bad things to some very bad people by the cruelty and sadism of fate, and some very sadistic filmmakers, is to film acting what Jeb Bush was to Presidential politics.
It’s as if they brought Jeb Bush on set every day and had him him drink lukewarm milk and read Reader’s Digest for hours on end to let the cast and crew know the precise level of excitement and intensity they were aiming for. If Death Wish were any sleepier or more low-energy, it would pause every five minutes for its characters to nap onscreen.
Who the fuck is Bruce Willis in 2018? What does he mean to us as a culture and to the filmmakers using him? The answer, Death Wish limply suggests, is not a whole hell of a lot. He’s not just a man of violence in pretty much every movie he makes other than Disney’s The Kid; he’s a cliche of violence, a boring generic white man who stands in for all other boring white men. At this point, Willis embodies caucasian action masculinity at its most tedious and forgettable.
Yet Death Wish nevertheless tries to get cute and clever by casting a dude who exists onscreen to kill people as a wealthy, cultured intellectual—we can tell by his impressive collection of expensive watches and boring sweaters—who would never even think of taking up arms against a sea of crudely stereotyped minority heavies unless he was pushed too far!
Before his life becomes a monomaniac quest for vengeance, a sleepwalking, barely awake Willis embodies wealthy whiteness at its most expensive and plain as the husband of a beautiful, white, boring Elisabeth Shue and the father of a college-age daughter who is very model-beautiful, white and boring to the point where her brutal assault is the catalyst for the action and her father’s descent/ascent into vigilante-hood and I forgot that her character existed and was still alive but in a perilous state for most of the movie.
The family’s well-educated Abercrombie and Fitch vanilla candle of a life is violently disrupted when some ne’er do wells break into their family’s Evanston castle of whiteness and murder the wife and sexually threaten and nearly kill the daughter, who hovers on the brink of death for most of the film.
As a surgeon, our drowsy main dude takes bullets out of patients but after his wife is killed, he starts to wonder about what it’d feel like to be one of the dudes who inserting those bullets into punks, hoodlums and non-whites and buys a whole mess o’ guns and a hoodie that completes his transformation from milquetoast probable NPR subscriber to gun-loving, bad-guy wasting folk hero vigilante “The Grim Reaper.”
It should not not to be tough for vigilante movies to whip up blood lust within audiences when they have combustible, cheap, powerful elements like brutally murdered wives and beloved daughters clinging to life in a coma at their disposal, not to mention racism, classism and the public’s seemingly bottomless appetite for watching Bruce Willis kill people onscreen.
A movie like this doesn’t have to be good or smart to manipulate our emotions or tug at our heartstrings. In fact, it’s easier to toy relentlessly with audiences if you’re vulgar, shameless and unprincipled. Death Wish is vulgar, shameless and unprincipled, all right, but watching it I felt nothing but boredom with the film and anger at its creators. There’s no urgency to our anti-hero’s plight, no guilty pleasure in his vengeance, no fun to be had.
And the local flavor! As a former Chicagoan, I was offended by it, just as I was offended by it as a moviegoer and human being. People here eat so much Chicago-style pizza that it begins to make Chicago-style look stomach-churning and I love that shit.
Death Wish lazily plays into a Donald Trump-endorsed vision of Chicago as a murderous dystopia where gangs run unchecked through a bleak waking nightmare, murder is epidemic, beautiful, boring white people in sweaters are terrorized by sweaty, bug-eyed minority crazies and society is perpetually on the brink of breaking down completely and degenerating into mass lawlessness.
Yet when a white guy in his fifties or sixties or seventies, who seems barely awake, begins killing “bad guys” it somehow becomes huge local and national news and catapults the Grim Reaper to folk hero status. Death Wish can’t even make Chicago look or seem like a scuzzy shit hole. It just makes it look boring, like everything about it.
And the one element of the city it wishes to highlight, beyond deep dish pizza that will give everyone involved here heart problems that will take them out of this world before our protagonist’s many guns can, is shock jock Matthew "Mancow" Muller, who serves as a Greek chorus blandly raising, and then re-raising, the issues at the film’s core: is the Grim Reaper a hero because he’s a white guy killing the bad guys? Or is he a zero because apparently only the police should be killing the bad guys or something?
Muller at least adds to the “everything that’s terrible about Chicago” vibe. The same cannot be said of non-Chicagoan Sway of MTV and radio fame, who is used just as extensively and as crudely and repetitively but distractingly has nothing to do with Chicago. But whatever. Instead of creating an emotional or sociopolitical reality for audiences, Death Wish just has two dudes from the radio continually keep telling you what’s going on (a white dude killing a modest variety of non-white bad guys in not terribly interesting ways) and how people feel about it (excited or not so much).
If Chicago is Murder Town, USA, where the biggest local industry is killing, the most popular sport is assassination and the main cause of death is getting killed by some gang banger, then why is the entire city riveted by these particular murders? Could it be because never before in the history of the universe has a 61 year old white guy from the suburbs with a good job wasted some street punks?
I worry about Chicago a lot. My elderly father is not happy in the nursing home where he lives in Morton Grove and according to movies like Death Wish everybody there is being murdered constantly. That’s not good for a community, for everybody to get killed with guns! No wonder President Trump is always talking all sorts of mess about it. It’s overwhelmingly Democratic and most of the people there are dead because they’ve been shot in the face by gangs for drugs.
That’s not something that I would want for Clint, for example. He’s a good dude, and not someone who should get killed by a black drug dealer known as “The Ice Cream Man” because he operates out of an ice cream cart and thinks nothing of fucking up little kids to protect his turf. Yet Death Wish makes it seem like that’s something that’s probably going to happen. Maybe the responsible thing would be for Clint to buy some guns to protect his home with. Wink, wink! And by “his home” I mean all of Chicago. I would be so proud of Clint if I were to discover that he “accidentally” killed a whole bunch of people “in self-defense”, especially if the human scum Clint wasted were non-caucasians. I’ve learned from movies like this that those are primarily the kinds of people who do the bad crimes, and consequently stand most to benefit from a little “street justice” if you catch my drift. And by “street justice” I mean "murdered with a gun by the good people."
This is my first Eli Roth movie. I've heard mixed things. And by "mixed" I mean "overwhelmingly negative." Is his deal that he makes terrible, boring movies that are terrible on an ideological level, and in every other way as well? Because that's what Death Wish would certainly suggest.
For all its deplorable, simplistic politics, what offended me most about Death Wish is how unforgivably boring it is. Vulgarity without energy or purpose is an empty proposition, and Death Wish can never muster up the ambition or the drive to be truly offensive. Instead it’s just sad, a feeble little whiff of a movie for no time, ever, but one that seems particularly tone-deaf and wrong for the cultural moment it was released into, and that it misjudges in a way that should be so much more interesting and revealing than it actually is.
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