Saturday, March 03, 2018

On Eli Roth's Death Wish

Note: apologies to Joe Carnahan - I HAD noticed his name in the credits (and based on Narc and The Grey, count myself as a fan) but I didn't know what to make of it, and didn't know ANY of the sad history of his screenplay (which you can read in the original here - thanks for that, David M.!). I am sure Carnahan's version would have been better. Anyhow, he doesn't get mentioned at all in what follows, but from what I gather, it wasn't much of "his" screenplay anymore at all (he left the project when the producers insisted on Bruce Willis). Hope he got a paycheque out of it, at least.  

I don't consider myself a total vulgarian when it comes to cinema. There is crap I enjoy - including the original Charles Bronson Death Wish movies, which I wrote about here; Cinema Sewer's Robin Bougie got me on a Bronson kick awhile ago and I really quite enjoyed myself. But simplistic and sleazy and crudely-made as such movies may be, I think the question of vigilantism is a very interesting one, not entirely irrelevant to my interest in punk rock (CF. Gerry Hannah's comments about Direct Action and vigilantes in Susanne Tabata's Bloodied But Unbowed). Sometimes crappy, sleazy movies can raise interesting questions, speak to aspects of society in a way that is potent, honest and unpretentious (no one \accused Bronson of being pretentious ever, I should imagine). And sometimes sleazy action films and thrillers do things that rival Un Chien Andalou in their capacity to unsettle, that can be quite startling and psychologically revealing, in ways more genteel, "mature" films rarely are.

Take Eli Roth's first two Hostel movies. While paid newspaper-type movie critics - mostly jobbers who trade in moral outrage and middlebrow mediocrity, seldom saying much of interest at all, often just jumping from one predictable bandwagon to the next - dismissed Roth's two best films as grindhouse "torture porn," I  would be hard-pressed to name any 21st century horror franchise that interested me half as much, and I entirely bought Roth's protestations on the Hostel II commentary that the film was meant as a sort of political protest against GW Bush's America, that it was a film about exploiting, torturing, and killing people for profit (among other things - there's also a whole subtext in the film about beauty and female competiveness, grounded by an incredibly brave performance from Heather Matarazzo, whose death scene is maybe the most upsetting scene in any movie I've seen, shy of Salo). When I applied to the Master's Program at Film Studies at UBC (which I was not admitted to, and nevermore shall attempt to access, because, well, just fuck'em), the main thing I was interested in writing about was transformative ordeals and class rage in what I was calling urban/ rural horror movies - a phrase I thought I had picked up from Carol J. Clover, but which I don't think she actually uses. Her chapter on rape revenge movies and the city versus the country in Men, Women and Chainsaws is some of the most provocative film writing I've read - and can be productively applied far beyond her scope (which mostly focuses on Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Hunter's Blood, and, of course, I Spit On Your Grave). If you get thinking about it, her analysis - that such films allow people further up the class ladder than the downtrodden to guiltlessly act out their rage at the poor, for MAKING them feel guilty in the first place - lends great depth to the Hostel franchise, which swaps out rural America in favour of economically-depressed Eastern Europe. It's part of a growing tendancy to use the developing world in the place of the dirt-poor, rapey hillbillies of Deliverance (see also, say, Turistas, for a Latin example. or The Ruins, or Borderland; there are others). There's lots I can say on the topic - there's a pretty good book in it, actually, on the globalization of urban/ rural horror... 

...but suffice it to say that I really, really liked the Hostel movies - especially part two, which is just jam-packed with ideas about class and gender and beauty and power and capitalism. It's one of the smartest, richest horror films I've seen, with its brilliance lying in part in the fact that it draws on a very simple template (but tweaks it and complicates it).  I spent a few years forcing friends to watch Roth, even got my wife, who doesn't like horror that much, to watch Hostel  (though she disliked it enough that I haven't pressed Hostel 2, the better film, on her... yet. There is almost no point, since I would probably have to just fast forward through Heather's big scene, which is just so cruel and heartbreaking and ugly that I couldn't bear to expose her to it, as important a scene as it is). 

Alas, I haven't been that impressed with anything Eli Roth has done since: acting kinda badly in a weaker Tarantino and the one Latin horror film I caught him in (Aftershock) didn't do anything to vindicate my enthusiasm for him, and while The Green Inferno and Knock Knock were both decent enough - I liked The Green Inferno the second time through far better than I did the first, after my expectations had been suitably lowered -  they weren't as original or striking as the first two Hostel films, with the first being a genre homage and the second a flat-out remake, if memory serves. I began to worry that Roth's early brilliance would prove to be as temporary as Tarantino's, if, as so often happens in American cinema, success would spoil him in one way or another (Because I haven't loved anything QT has done since Jackie Brown, you know? And I flat out disliked his last two features,  albeit in very different ways).  

Anyhow, having read Brian Garfield's original novel; having seen all the Bronson Death Wish films, and several other Bronsons besides; having seen Death Wish knockoffs like Harry Brown and The Brave One, having greatly enjoyed James "Saw" Wan's Death Sentence, based on Garfield's follow up novel to Death Wish, and much truer to Garfield's intended message; and having even watched Zebedy Colt's bizarre, transgressive, and disturbing porn ripoff of Death Wish, Sex Wish... I was actually really excited to hear that Eli Roth was taking on Death Wish, and I thought it brilliant that he had cast Bruce Willis in the lead role. It seemed a perfect choice, especially if Roth was planning to do anything remotely transgressive or fresh with his text. He had every opportunity - to make a film that stood to the original Death Wish films as Unforgiven stood to earlier, more violent Clint Eastwood fare, or that took in, say, a film like Falling Down (which speaks to the put-upon white male vigilante, with some fairly overt political messaging). Willis has long been - especially in the first Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout - sort of a poster-boy for put-upon white male rage; who better could Roth possibly cast in the role of Paul Kersey - especially if Roth intended to subvert Kersey's vengeful rage, query it, make it an uncomfortable place for the viewer to access? (Which, by the way, is what Wan does with Death Sentence, making it very clear in a way the Bronson franchise never did that VIGILANTISM IS BAD, that it leads to a dehumanized, ugly place; Kevin Bacon ends up far uglier than the monsters he's dispatching, and the film ends up no advertisement for taking the law into your own hands). Garfield had always disliked the Death Wish franchise for making his story into something pro-vigilante, turning Kersey into a sort of folk hero.... and I always felt bad for him, because the book, while uncomfortable, even painful to read, has brilliance to it. Roth could right that old wrong, amp up the damaged, racist, angry aspects of his main character's descent, and maybe even end the film with a surprise twist, like having Kersey get shot and killed at the end by a black man, say. There are a billion interesting and provocative things to be said about gun violence and racial tension in America right now; and if you're going to address such issues through an exploitation film - especially a remake - what better source text to choose than Death Wish?

You see, all the hand-flapping bandwagon-jumping critics who,  when the Death Wish trailer broke, posted articles about how tone-deaf, ill-timed, and insensitive it was for Roth to resurrect this franchise...? They were TOTALLY WRONG. It was, all along, a potentially brilliant move. If Roth did something as brave and confrontational as he did with the Hostel films, if he took a few risks - I thought - and ventured to rub his audience's noses in their desires and prejudices, he could make an INCREDIBLY timely and politically significant film, show that his finger was in fact RIGHT on the pulse of American violence, maybe even digging his thumbnail into it a bit. IT COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT. I spent months salivating, even interviewed Robin Bougie about his reactions to the trailer. (I avoided watching it, myself, lest it sully my excitement). Despite the early shit reviews - which were totally predictable, given the current state of critical culture -  I still made my way off my sickbed to see the film on opening night at Metrotown, last night, with at least somewhat high hopes still intact. 

Sometimes you need to have a movie you have hopes for, you know?

And while I enjoyed myself - it's a fine, fun "homage" to the Bronson films, and if you like those, you'll probably enjoy it well enough - I must say that my main reaction was disappointment. I try NOT in general to review a film against what I had HOPED it was going to be, but it's impossible for me to do otherwise here, since my hopes were so high and played so much of a role in my going to see it last night: I had hoped this film would do something inspired and original with the Death Wish mythos, and that it would vindicate all the long hours I have spent arguing against the "torture porn" Roth-dismissers out there. 

Sigh. Turns out the film is merely okay. It is assembled well-enough, in terms of editing and photography and scoring and pacing - it is a competent bit of crap, vastly better-made than any of the original Death Wishes, for one thing (none of which look that good, and especially not the first one). Some of the overhead traffic shots are just great. Some of the action scenes play out very crisply. There's a bit of interesting commentary on social media, with Willis watching a clip of himself in action on the internet and approving, even smiling. I like the score. Even AC/DC is well-used - how is it that "Back in Black" hasn't been in a movie until now? (Or has it been...?). 

All of that is not enough by far - especially when MOST of the key players in the film appear to be beyond Roth's capacity to direct. Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Shue, and Dean Norris all look like actors delivering lines through most of the film (with Willis basically re-visiting the ground covered in the vastly fresher Unbreakable: he seems sad and mournful even before the home invasion that so damages his family, so you never really feel the depths of his grief or rage, afterwards; he's basically in sad-sack mode the whole fuckin' film, turning in a performance that actually is WEAKER, acting-wise, than Charles Bronson's - which, much as I like Charles Bronson, is really SAYING something). Vincent D'Onofrio, on the other hand, almost overacts his role, running a bit too far with it, like he's compensating for Willis' lack of expressivity, panicking a little at how stiff everyone else is; he borders on the hammy at times, which doesn't help matters. There are a few relative unknowns who do decent work in the film - Camila Morrone, as Jordan Kersey, or Beau Knapp as Knox, to name two - but the only name actor present who actually submits a memorable performance is Stephen McHattie, who has a minute-long cameo in the film, where he bursts in a room, EXPLODES with actorly power, and then leaves, putting everyone else in the film to shame. His lines are NOT "you call this acting? Where the fuck did you learn to act, in a TV commercial? You assholes aren't acting. THIS is acting, for fucksake. NOW SHAPE UP!" That is NOT what he says, but that's kind of what you take away from his scene. 

I love Stephen McHattie. I like that Roth cast him, obviously just for the sake of having McHattie in the film, briefly. 

It still is nowhere near enough to save the movie. Where the film is really disappointing is in its completely not living up to ANY of the potential it has. Does it offer anything new or fresh or interesting? Does it say anything that the original Death Wish films didn't? Does it do anything remotely inspired or creative, beyond having Kersey watchin' himself kill people online?

Okay, there's one pretty great, gory torture scene in it, but I always held that Roth, at his best, was about a LOT more than "torture porn." Maybe his naysayers have convinced him, finally, that that's a suitable ghetto for him to occupy, though? When the only remotely fresh scene in the film is, in fact, a scene of torture... it makes me wonder if maybe I had Roth wrong all along? Maybe Hostel II isn't the inspired, provocative masterpiece of contemporary horror that I always took it for? ...or maybe he just got lucky, had a couple of good ideas early on, then made a lot of money and got lazy or just plumb ran out of new things to say? 

It wouldn't be the first time, in American cinema, that that's happened.

Eli Roth's Death Wish did not offend me. I enjoyed it well enough - if you like a good violent shoot-em-up kinda film, if you like Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis movies, you'll probably enjoy it just fine. It is no more dangerous or tasteless than most other action films out there; if it remains in line with the reactionary tendencies of the original franchise - if we started condeming American movies for being reactionary, there wouldn't be many of them left that we could watch. The film is a purely passable entertainment. Someone who has never seen a Charles Bronson film might even find it an agreeable gateway drug. 

But I sure didn't care about it, and I'd really hoped to. 

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Apparently the name I should have been following is Joe Carnahan's. I had positive associations with Roth and I try NOT to read about movies I KNOW I want to see - at least until after I see them. So I am only now learning, thanks to David M., that the film was a Carnahan project that he LEFT when Bruce Willis was forced on him, and that he had written a very different script. Carnahan has made at least two great, tough, original films - Narc and The Grey - and I even enjoyed the crap-for-hire that he has done (the A-Team movie!). So I have no doubt his script - which is online - is wayyyy better than the Roth film. Let us hope Carnahan gets to do somethimg with it. What a wasted opportunity...