It’s the 1970s. The American urban sprawl is a crime-filled wasteland of drugs and violence. Gangs openly walk the streets, hunting for victims in the parks, on the subway, and even in the grocery store. What’s a guy to do? Why, get a gun and go to town, of course.
Death Wish is a weird and entertaining mix of ideas wrapped up in one film. It is most obviously a vigilante film about a middle to upper class white guy pissed at the world for what happened to his wife and daughter at the hand of three hooligans. It is also an portrait of a man whose grief brings him into a twisted cowboy fantasy, an exploration of how the self-indulgent upper class view the filthy poor, how the media catch on and feast over a story to then dispense it throughout the world, how the government suppresses information it doesn’t like, and a pretty good detective story to boot. In short, it’s a lot of things, and I enjoy it.
Now obviously, it’s tough subject material. Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, who’s wife is murdered and daughter brutally raped while he’s at work. The violence and rape are shown too, not shied away from. The scene is nasty, and it’s made worse when a detective admits to Bronson that there isn’t much likelihood that anyone will be caught. Worse yet, Bronson’s daughter ends up depressed and eventually catatonic as he watches and demands his son-in-law take her to better doctors.
With all the stress in his life, Bronson’s firm decides to send him on a working vacation to Arizona. While there, he meets up with the world’s greatest Texan stereotype, visits a gun club, and watches a staged gunfight for tourists that plants the seed of mental illness in him too. When he comes back, he brings a gun and starts setting himself up as bait so he can fight back. When he first kills, he gets sick. Then he gets to liking it. Eventually he speaks in cowboy stereotypes as he goes about his killing, which just shows how unhinged he’s gotten.
Of course, while he’s off in a fantasy, the world around him is reacting too. One of the best aspects of the film is how his anonymous vigilantism becomes the main news topic, and it’s freaking everywhere! Billboards, buses, fliers stapled to walls, rich people parties, dinner clubs, it’s all the rich folks want to discuss in the safety of their homes. They talk about how great it is and make jokes about killing off poor people and setting racial quotes. None of them do anything. The only one who does is Bronson, and in one line, his boss notes at a party that Bronson’s character isn’t the same anymore; he is living in a fantasy but actually doing something about crime, and therefore he doesn’t fit in with the high rollers who think they’re so smart.
Then there’s the cop who has to investigate: Detective Frank Ochoa, played by the spectacular Vincent Gardenia. He’s the voice of reason and reality, dealing with some kind of unspecified medical condition and looking like crap as he orders his officers to comb through old records and paperwork to investigate crime. In short, while the rich people blither, poor people kill each other, and Bronson is living a fantasy, Vincent is stuck doing the dirty work of actually investigating and cleaning up, and you know what? He’s good at it. Hell, he’s one of the best parts.
Death Wish has been argued that it’s pro-vigilantism, but I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I saw it as a film that shows you how nasty violence is, how insane you’d have to be to try to use it as a means to fix crime, how worthless the big talkers are, and how much crap cops actually have to go through to try and resolve a case. It doesn’t glorify any part of this process, and it’s a damn good film at the same time. Plus it ends with Bronson showing he’s still crazy and looking forward to gunning down more people, so hey, the problem has just been shoved off onto someone else! Great job, everyone!