It’s hard to imagine a movie more tone deaf and ill-suited for its time than Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. Whereas the original was borne out of rising crime and upheaval in the inner city that stoked the fears of middle America, the new Death Wish unquestioningly celebrates vigilante justice divorced from humanity. It’s a movie where criminals exist only so they can be gunned down mercilessly, the media (represented by radio talk shows) just debates if vigilantes should exist, and Bruce Willis grins his way through the whole thing. Roth adds his macabre instincts for gruesome bloodshed and torture, but it all just renders Death Wish as a fantasy for people who think they can be heroes so long as they have an arsenal and zero regard for human life.
Paul Kersey (Willis) is an ER doctor working in Chicago (where before the story even begins we’re told via audio snippets the city is a violent hellscape of crime). When his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and their daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is put into a coma after a break-in gone bad, Paul is left frustrated by the lack of a police response. Unable to sleep and determined to find justice, Paul sets out on a path of vigilantism, taking lessons from YouTube and picking up untraceable weapons from patients. Wearing a hoodie to disguise his face, Paul takes to vigilantism quickly, never questioning what it means to take life even though his profession is devoted to saving it. When he gets a read on the men who broke into his house, Paul makes it his mission to hunt them down.
I’ll say this for Death Wish: the audience at my screening loved it. They were absolutely on Roth’s wavelength of creating a mindless revenge thriller where Paul brutally murders and tortures people. The audience whooped and cheered at the requisite one-liners followed by consequence-free murder. And I suppose there’s some kind of release in that in the same way there’s a release from playing something like Grand Theft Auto that lets us live out dark fantasies.
And yet, the framework for Death Wish is too disturbing and repugnant to allow for gleeful dismissal of Paul’s actions. Throughout the movie, you can’t shake the feeling that the script was headed in a more satirical direction, but the finished film unquestioningly goes for an action-thriller based around violent kills. There are certain aspects that feel meant to impugn our current system like how Chicago is held up by conservatives as the reason why gun laws don’t work while ignoring that guns flood in from Indiana where they have laxer laws. Putting Paul in a hoodie points to how a white guy can brandish a gun and do whatever he wants, but a black teenager in a hoodie is deemed an immediate threat. But Roth’s movie never wants to engage with these concepts, so they’re unquestioningly dropped in and it makes the film look cavalier and callous as a result.
Then there’s Willis, who seems to think he’s just playing John McClane again. Willis is a good actor when he wants to be, but he can also be incredibly indifferent, and Death Wish is the latter. Paul has moments of sadness and frustration, but Willis seems far more at ease when he’s just gunning down bad guys. Keep in mind that in the first Die Hard, McClane does everything he can to avoid direct confrontation with the terrorists until absolutely necessary. Compare that with Paul, who decides to take matters into his own hands because he can’t accept the randomness and cruelty of the universe. Far better to just run out into the street and shoot criminals.
Make no mistake: guns are presented as the primary solution in Death Wish. When Paul first confronts some bad guys, they beat him up because he doesn’t have a weapon. It’s only when he finally has a gun that he has a power. Paul also never runs into a situation where cops mistake him for the aggressor, he never hits any citizen in the crossfire, and, most importantly, he never gets caught. In Death Wish, Paul is a hero, and while the movie makes faint nods towards, “Maybe he’s doing something wrong,” everything on screen tells us that we’re supposed to cheer for him.
The celebration of not only gun violence, but gun ownership, makes Death Wish a deeply uncomfortable experience. Although gun rights advocates are quick to point the finger at movies and television for creating a culture of violence, a movie like Death Wish plays into the fantasy of the “good guy with a gun,” that doesn’t have time for nuance or hardship. Once Paul starts gunning down bad guys, he’s able to sleep and cheer up. Unlike the original Death Wish where violence ruins everything it touches, in the remake, it’s a cure-all. Happiness is only a semi-automatic away.