Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Death Wish and the Mythology of Defensive Masculinity

The 1974 Michael Winner film, Death Wish is best described as brutal or raw. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect and liberal who lives in New York with his wife. He has a married daughter who lives in the city as well. His values are thrown into chaos when street punks break into his house, murder his wife and rape his daughter. The police can't seem to find the criminals, though they really aren't making much of an effort. Horrified and helpless, Kersey returns to work. His boss, sensing that Kersey needs to get out of the city, sends him to Tucson for an assignment. There, the pacifist Kersey gets up close to gun culture. He meets Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a man who has contracted Kersey's work in building a development. Aimes is also a gun owner who encourages and celebrates a kind of wild west code. He gives Kersey a gun as a parting gift for his work. This gift is in dangerous combination with the ideas of vigilantism that are already forming in Kersey's mind. Before his trip to Tuscon, he thwarted an attempted mugging by smacking the assailant in the face with a sock stuffed with two rolls of quarters. Afterwards, he is shown in his apartment in a state of manic euphoria, swinging the quarters wildly in the air until the sock breaks open and spills the quarters on the floor.

Kersey has not mourned his loss but rather throws himself into work. Now that he has a gun, he begins to wander the streets at night, alone, in dangerous places. New York of the 70s was economically struggling and crime rates were stratospheric. As a result, it doesn't take long before Kersey has shot and killed about six people. This movie is an examination of a dormant and defensive masculinity suddenly awakened. An important scene occurs between Paul and his son-in-law Jack Toby (Stephen Keats) in which they discuss crime and defense:

Paul Kersey: Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don't defense us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.
Jack Toby: We're not pioneers anymore.
Paul Kersey: What are we, Jack?
Jack Toby: What do you mean?
Paul Kersey: I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?
Jack Toby: Civilized?
Paul Kersey: No.

Kersey refutes the idea that the only recourse is to allow a criminal element to take over the streets. Instead, he becomes the force for revenge. Though this film is incredibly violent and often seems like a series of scenes in which Bronson goes around shooting people, there appears to be a deeper message. Bronson's unusual features and stoicism reveal a great deal. Death Wish is ultimately about an inability to grieve. Kersey never cries and he never rages. His only emotional display comes after he commits a violent act- as in the scene after the quarter attack and the scene following his first kill when he suffers a panic attack and vomits. The only other emotion that he is capable of displaying is grim acceptance. Masculinity and emotion, or the lack thereof, seem to be problematic here. Kersey's only outlet is through violence. If that is the case, then perhaps the underlying message of the film is not that vigilantism is ideal, but rather that all of the violence, the crime and the resultant vigilantism are due to a kind of frozen emotional state on the part of men, wherein grief, rage, anger, frustration are only expressed through aggression.

What is most interesting about the conversation between Kersey and his son-in-law is the suggestion that defense is an "old American custom." That is to say that this specific type of violence seems to be wholly American. Kersey's trip to Arizona is a kind of return to the roots of American violence, it represents Kersey's embrace of frontier justice. There is an adoration of weaponry in the United States not found anywhere else. This film focuses on that idea briefly, of a love of guns being handed down generationally. Kersey even suggests that the gun is an extension of the penis; a point Aimes does not refute, but rather seems proud of or in agreement with the idea. Aimes also compares New York City to Tucson saying that if New Yorkers defended themselves as Tucsonians do, crime rates would drop. In Kersey's altered state, this idea seems reasonable.

The frightening thing about this film is that it never presents an alternative for Kersey. Kersey becomes a kind of anonymous folk hero. So much so that the police are loathe to charge him of a crime when they discover he is the vigilante for fear that he will influence the public even more. The decision is made to kick Kersey out of New York. Kersey making an old West metaphor of the situation, jokes that they want him out by sundown. Perhaps with this mindset motivating him, he heads West to Chicago where it is made clear that he will be a vigilante there as well. Kersey's condition seems to be static, in that his life has been hopelessly altered by crime, he is unable or unwilling to grieve or face up to this fact and, further, that avenging this crime repeatedly through the killing of other criminals offers a kind of temporary peace. In many ways, this film indicates that violence is throughly entrenched or ingrained in American culture and that there isn't a way out of that entrenchment.

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