Death Wish (1974) inspires primal rage and fear
Death Wish (1974) is not fun, and it’s not an action movie, but it makes you question just what effect crime has on the psyche. Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, and he demonstrates this effect pretty damn well. He is a successful man making a pretty good wage as an architect, but after his family is brutalized, he becomes a different man. He doesn’t seem all that depressed, but when he looks at pictures of his dead wife, the camera zooms in as if wanting to catch the anger in his eyes. Inspired by these primal emotions, he gets even, taking his gun out to blow some crooks away.
If you come out smiling after this movie, I’m not sure what’s wrong with you. This is not a fun movie. It takes place in dirty New York, and they don’t glamorize anything. Even Bronson’s shootings are fairly simple and have a realistic tone. The movie plays on your fear of the city landscape outside, which holds a lot of danger for the common man.
Charles Bronson plays his part stoically, like you might expect. There are a few times he lashes out and yells at his stupid son-in-law, but he always regresses into calm retreat a few minutes later. Why does this guy become a vigilante? I suspect that after the death of his wife and the trauma to his daughter, Paul Kersey emerged with so much rage that he lost all appreciation for living and began to care more about revenge. He really has a death wish, and he’s gonna stomp the life out of some lowlife jerks before he goes.
This character transformation from an admitted liberal to a vigilante is a strange one. Kersey’s father was killed in a hunting accident, and his mother hated guns, which means Kersey hated guns too. After the death of his wife, Kersey picks up a gun with no reluctance and becomes a perfect shot in about twenty seconds. He’s not nervous and hits a bullseye on his first try. He has no fear. I guess I’d be traumatized too if some muggers killed my family, but I doubt I’d have the guts to become as cold as Kersey. Charles Bronson sells this point, and for my entertainment, it works. Kersey’s character is further contrasted in Death Wish II, when he leads a double life, while he continues to go out at night as the murderous vigilante. Who is this guy?
This trashy movie is my one guilty pleasure, so I like watching it from time to time, so I think it’s classic. It reminds me of Dirty Harry, but with a plot boiled down to the essential emotions. It doesn’t have the highest production values, and almost crosses over into exploitation territory. Surprisingly, Roger Ebert gave this movie 3 out of 4 stars, and I agree. It seems to be more about a call for justice, or at least some kind of reform, and Bronson seems more like a character out of the wild west in each successive movie outing.
I think I have to complement Charles Bronson on his work here. The highlight of the movie is not the shooting, but the moment when he takes out some pictures of his vacation to Hawaii with his wife. The music sings of sadness, but Bronson stares at them blankly. I could almost make out his ice cold feelings at that moment, and I think I saw a distinctive squint, as if memories of his wife were too much for him.
Whatever the theme, Death Wish is a social drama, a thriller, and propaganda. You can see from this long-winded writing that the themes have a lot of meat to them. The police admit that crime goes down because of Paul Kersey, but he’s not a hero. We sympathize with him because of his family, but he’s merely a traumatized man with a death wish. Like a man drinking himself to death, Kersey goes on walking the streets.