The New York Times reports that last week at a pro-Trump conference, a video showing Trump massacring people with the names of news organizations and left-wing groups superimposed over faces. I will not link to that video, but the scene that it’s using is from Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service. The scene has always been bad, and while Vaughn is obviously not responsible for what a Trump follower does with that scene, it brings a troubling light on to the depiction of violence and raises questions about artist responsibility.
For those who haven’t seen Kingsman and don’t mind spoilers for a five-year-old movie (let’s be honest, if you were going to see Kingsman, you would have watched it by now), in the scene, the heroic spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) goes to investigate a church that may be linked to bad guy Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). However, Valentine’s big plan that he’s going to use the church—which is depicted as a bunch of far-right zealots—to try out a cell phone signal will cause people to go insane and start trying to kill each other. Because Harry is a trained killer, he (also under the influence of the cell phone signal) is able to kill the people in the church who are trying to kill him. The scene is set to “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I don’t think Matthew Vaughn is a “bad” director, but I think he walks the line of irreverence so closely that sometimes he just stumbles into outright offense, misunderstanding story and tone in favor of looking “cool” and “stylish.” The intent of the scene seems to be that because the church is filled with Westboro Baptist types, it’s okay to slaughter them en masse. We don’t like these intolerant people, and so they deserve to die, and we can all have fun watching Harry murder them. But that reading doesn’t look at the totality of the scene or the story.
In this scene, our heroic character is being forced against his will to do something he would never do because it’s monstrous. He’s being forced to kill an entire congregation because the bad guy has sent out a mind-control signal. That’s not cause for celebration. It’s a moment where our villain, not our hero, is victorious, but Vaughn plays it for fun and without any sense of critique. For Vaughn, it’s an action scene and action scenes should be exciting, and these are “bad people” anyway, so who cares if they get shot in the face.
The second misunderstanding of the script Vaughn co-wrote with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman is that the subtext of the scene is that our phones cause us to act inhumanely. We deprive others of humanity with this “social” device and we use our phones, with the help of social networks, to behave in a way that’s meaner, ruder, and uglier than we normally would. The subtext is a critique on a real-world issue, and smart move in a script that, to be fair, usually does a good job of providing an insightful take on the spy-action genre. It’s a clever twist for a 21st century tech bro bent on remaking the world to use our phones against us because we’re reliant on them, and the script adds the commentary of how our devices cause us to behave with the added bit of hyperbole.
But again, Vaughn misinterprets his own script and his whole story by playing the scene for enjoyment. I’m not someone who’s anti-violence in movies. I don’t think movies cause people to be violent, but I do think that filmmakers need to be smarter about how they choose to depict violence because of how easily it can tip from exciting to disgusting. In Vaughn’s 2010 movie Kick-Ass, he makes the violence work because everything is so exaggerated, and the villains are clearly defined. When Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) goes on a killing spree, we enjoy it because he’s juxtaposed her innocence with the extreme violence of her actions, and those actions are being taken against a group of violent thugs. They are clearly defined as one-dimensional bad guys, and the exaggerated tone works to heighten the set piece. Fun can be had by all.
That doesn’t happen in the Kingsman scene, and especially these days, we shouldn’t be so cavalier about violence in public spaces. It’s not like mass shootings were rare when Kingsman was released and in the time since the film came out, multiple houses of worships have been shot up by a madman. Again, Vaughn isn’t responsible for that, but there’s no reason to be cold and callous towards the real world even if you’re trying to provide a bit of escapism. Directors like Vaughn need to think a little harder about the entertainment they’re trying to provide because as the Trump massacre video shows the line between escapism and violent ideation isn’t as clear as they’d like to believe.