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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey in Death Wish

Neither Death Wish film dares to grapple with the anti-vigilante stance of the novel

Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey in Death Wish
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Page To ScreenIn Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

Brian Garfield’s 1972 book Death Wish was written as a challenge to audiences. The impulse behind its premise is understandable, even sympathetic: A man craves revenge after his wife is killed and his daughter raped in a horrific attack. With the NYPD unable to catch the perpetrators and seemingly powerless against the era’s omnipotent lawlessness, he takes things into his own hands and becomes a vigilante, gunning down muggers and other perceived criminals. It asks its readers, “Is this really what you want? Do you know where this bloodlust leads?”

The book explores this premise in a rather brave way; it has a lot of empathy for those who feel helpless or angry, and gives full weight to their emotions and a full hearing for their argument. Ultimately, though, it sees vigilantism as a step on the road to fascism, one fueled by anger and exacerbated by the factor of race, which so often goes hand in hand with issues surrounding crime, law enforcement, and class. The book is almost subtle and complex enough that it could be mistaken for an out-and-out endorsement of vigilantism, when it is explicitly the opposite.

There’s no making that mistake with Michael Winner’s 1974 adaptation, however, to say nothing of the increasingly ludicrous and offensive franchise Death Wish grew into. The films are unabashedly in favor of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, lauding him as a hero who delivers a form of deserved frontier justice. The same goes for Eli Roth’s new remake (“from” Garfield’s book, the credits read, rather than based on it), which transports the action to present-day Chicago.

The book and first film are effective in how they tap into a reservoir of frustration many audiences were feeling. Crucially, Paul isn’t out to find his wife’s murderer. The crime isn’t even depicted in the book, though it is in the film, a very icky scene made almost comic by the Warriors-esque clothing of the attackers and their leader, a young Jeff Goldblum. No, his Sisyphean task is a reaction against all crime. This is the remake’s most significant change, as, in addition to killing drug dealers and gangbangers, Bruce Willis also investigates his wife’s death, downgrading this from an abstract moral quandary to a standard revenge thriller.

Crime was a serious problem in New York in the ’70s, just as it is in Chicago today (by different degrees), but beyond that, there was a broader sense of despair that made Paul’s rebellion so potent and resonant; many no doubt believed, as happens here, that a zero-tolerance vigilante would spark the kind of falling crime rates that pansy-ass methods could never hope to achieve, signifying a measure of control regained in a chaotic world.

The state of 1970s New York is repeatedly underlined; the book gives a lot of stats that paint a grim portrait, although I couldn’t confirm their accuracy and they seem somewhat exaggerated: an assault or robbery every 12 seconds; convictions in just five percent of reported cases; heroin addicts that outnumber police officers “by a factor of several thousand to one.” Someone sighs, “Even seeing-eye dogs are having nervous breakdowns from the strain of living in this city.”

Winner’s film opens with Paul and his wife (Hope Lange) leaving a Hawaiian vacation and being greeted in New York by an ominously blood-red sky and dead trees that look like they should be lining the route to a witch’s castle. At work the next day, Paul’s colleague brings him up to date on what he’s missed: 15 murders the previous week, 21 this week—and that’s just so far. (Paul’s an architect here, an accountant in the book, and an ER surgeon in the remake.)

The first film’s Manhattan seems abandoned and foreboding, the nights dominated by shadows so deep they suggest a void more than mere darkness. Today, a moonless night will be perfectly illuminated by streetlamps, signs, and glowing apartment windows, but here the characters are surrounded by emptiness, underlining their vulnerability and all the places threats could be lurking. It’s effective.

Bronson is also effective, but his casting speaks to why the film is so different from—and simpler than—the book. He was one of the great tough guys of Hollywood, an icon from a bunch of classic Westerns. On one hand, that’s appropriate, as Paul is explicitly positioned as a kind of urban cowboy. He gets the vigilante idea after watching a cheesy Wild West-type show, where the sheriff doesn’t waste time with such niceties as due process before putting the smackdown on an outlaw. Back home he tells muggers, “fill your hands” before firing, as though they’re in the O.K. Corral. (That Willis, the “cowboy” of the Die Hard franchise, plays the Bronson role in the remake is a hint to its take on the material.)

All this is well within Bronson’s wheelhouse, and Paul is probably the role he’s most associated with now. Certainly he’s convincing when delivering stony threats or facing someone down (and least convincing when grieving). But the book repeatedly makes the point that while he wishes he was a hero, he lacks the courage or white-hat morals of those archetypes. Instead, he’s a terrified and weak man, and he’s ashamed and deeply angry at having those emotions instead of more positive and masculine ones. At the same time, he’s desperate enough to confuse the purity of his shame and anger for a kind of strength.

We’re told, “He had always managed to bottle things up; anything else was weakness.” He wants his wife back. Not because he loved her, but because “he would have shouted at her and it would have made him feel better.” At a low point, he realizes he “wasn’t gentle; he was a flabby coward. It was dawning on him that the most terrifying thing about his existence was his ineffectualness.” His bleeding-heart ideals, he’s devastated to learn, have no currency in what he now feels is the real world.

Bronson is okay with that, but Paul really shouldn’t be. Garfield hated the adaptation; nearly 40 years after the book was published, he was still repeating that vigilantism was just “an attractive fantasy” that “only makes things worse in reality.” In 1975 he wrote a sequel, Death Sentence, that underlined this point. Death Wish 2, needless to say, took inspiration elsewhere. In that rich tradition, Joe Carnahan, the credited writer of the remake, disowned Roth’s film after submitting a draft that was apparently closer to Garfield’s book. It’s remarkable how, with such a basic and replicable premise, both Winner and Roth feel the need to cite the source novel while running from its message.

One can imagine a version of the film that casts Bronson against type, or the more faithful adaptation that would likely have come with its first creative team, which was to have been director Sidney Lumet and Jack Lemmon in the lead. (Other considered names included Henry Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, and George C. Scott, all of whom would also have worked.)

Lemmon and Lumet would likely have taken Paul down the same dark path Garfield outlines; it’s interesting how different the book and film are for having such similar narratives. This divergence is best explained in a scene added to the film: Son-in-law Jack comes to visit shortly after Paul’s started walking around bad neighborhoods at night, blowing away the inevitable mugger. The young man—husband to Paul’s daughter, who is basically comatose with PTSD—is aghast at what he finds: Paul is frying up liver for dinner, listening to upbeat music, and has just painted his apartment a cheery orange-soda color. He’s happy, in other words, and he owes it all to killing folk.

The book’s Paul is a sponge who absorbs every bit of hatred and ugliness he sees. The killings also fill a need for him, but a more confused one; he feels anguish but also “all the symptoms of a sexual release” when they occur. Really, the movie character with the greatest connection to him isn’t Bronson’s depiction, but Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, who also rues the scum and filth of the night streets and sees himself as an avenging angel when his rage explodes into a bloodbath. (Taxi Driver came out four years after the book, though I’ve never seen Martin Scorsese or screenwriter Paul Schrader refer to it as a touchstone.)

Garfield is almost shockingly candid about Paul’s rage and the way it ties in with fears of an “other.” At one point he goes to a bar and speaks with a proudly self-identifying bigot, who runs through the expected litany of racial slurs, decrying the lazy people on welfare, and complaining that “they took our jobs” (while on welfare?). “A month ago Paul would have tried to find a way to show him it wasn’t that simple, wasn’t that cut-and-dried,” Garfield writes. “Now he was no longer sure the man wasn’t right. Permissive societies were like permissive parents: they produced hellish children.”

Soon after, a rage takes over as Paul leaves a subway:

They were cattle being prodded up a chute [exiting the train]. Human cattle most of them: you could see in their faces and bodies they didn’t deserve life, they had nothing to contribute except the smelly unimaginative existences of their wretched carcasses. They had never read a book, created a phrase, looked at a budding flower and really seen it. All they did was get in your way. Their lives were unending litanies of anger and frustration and complaint; they whined their way from cradle to grave. What good were they to anyone? Exterminate them.

In fairness, anyone who has ridden the MTA has thought something similar, so here’s Paul right before, when jammed into the subway itself. Needless to say, Garfield doesn’t see this man as heroic.

He found he was looking from face to face along the rows of crowded passengers, resentfully scanning them for signs of redeeming worth: if you wanted to do something about overpopulation this was the place to start. He made a head-count and discovered that of the fifty-eight faces he could see, seven appeared to belong to people who had a right to survive. The rest were fodder.

I should have been a Nazi [he thought].

Willis’ Paul, like Bronson’s, is never troubled by his killing; there’s not even a scene—as appears in the book and original—where he vomits after his first murder. He’s feeling great, he chuckles to his grief counselor; he’s a typical action hero, down to the ridiculous McBain-style one-liners. He’s getting his revenge, so why should he feel bad? (Roth, never one for subtlety, films each killing as a stylized set piece, giving them less dramatic or emotional heft.)

There’s a similar dynamic in the original, which ensures that Bronson can justify everyone he shoots. He presents himself as bait, but everyone he kills is killed in self-defense, which gives the film a kind of (dubious) moral grounding. The book is not like that. At one point, Paul rents a car and abandons it, as to attract carjackers he can immediately gun down. Later he nearly kills a pair of teenagers, just because they look sketchy.

Most horrifically, the book ends with Paul killing a group of kids, partly because they’re throwing projectiles at an elevated subway, but mostly because he doesn’t like how they look. A policeman witnesses the killings, but rather than arresting him, the cop recognizes him as the vigilante, salutes him, and turns a blind eye to the murdered children. “They were no altar boys,” he might’ve been thinking.

The original movie features a subplot about Vincent Gardenia, who plays the (sneezy, emasculated) cop out to solve the vigilante killings. He discovers Paul’s identity and warns him ahead of an interrogation, and at the end declines to arrest him in exchange for his leaving the city. (“By sundown?” our cowboy growls.) However, this doesn’t play as the same type of law-enforcement endorsement the book’s ending does; there’s an implication that Paul embarrassed the police by doing their job better than them, and that exile is a way to save face while acknowledging his positive impact. (The film’s last shot has Bronson in Chicago, pointing a finger-gun at an asshole who messes with a woman’s packages, an apparent capital offense. Make no mistake, while the NYPD doesn’t support Bronson’s methods, the film absolutely does.)

The remake features Dean Norris in the role, which is too thinly written to play as any kind of point. For much of the film he’s inept or seems downright indifferent to the murders he’s trying to solve (he’s on both the case of Paul’s wife, played by Elisabeth Shue, as well as of the vigilante killings—he and his partner are apparently Chicago’s only two cops), until he’s positioned as heroic by looking the other way when it counts. As a reward for this manly decision, he gets to break his decidedly unmanly gluten-free diet. Take that, presumed off-screen wife.

If the original film has been embraced by right-wingers—Breitbart’s John Nolte is a big fan; he also called the remake “perfectly timed” for the political moment—the book doesn’t fall neatly into modern political ideologies. Speaking about the epidemic of drug addicts, Jack sighs, “Who can afford to treat every one of them as long as we go on spending 70 percent of the budget beefing up weapons to overkill the rest of the world?” Paul is initially disgusted by the sight of a gay couple, but then he reflects that no matter what he thinks, they deserve to walk the streets without harassment. Later, he’ll run from a woman with “a knife-edged garrulous militancy for Women’s Lib”—a missed opportunity of a scene, as her views on the patriarchy would probably reflect Paul’s on crime in illuminating ways.

Garfield is so perceptive about masculinity’s relationship to crime and violence that he becomes downright prescient. Despite massive drops in crime over past decades, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently proclaimed that “for the first time in a long time, Americans can have hope for a safer future.” Why would someone oversell crime? Per Death Wish, it’s “part of the spurious hearty masculine myths that city men constructed to reassure themselves of their machismo and the toughness of the world they inhabited.”

That’s the kind of insight you only get if you look deep into the dark heart of American rage and violence, if you see revenge as a fantasy that needs to be squelched, not indulged. It is not what you get if—in the age of George Zimmerman, a president who proposes “Second Amendment people” act against his opponents, and near-daily mass shootings—you position your vigilante as a “husband, father, patriot,” and cheerfully imply that if more people just went out and killed people, we could make America great again.

Start with: I was surprised by how compelling the book proved to be, how resonant it feels to so many issues still discussed today, from mass shootings and #MeToo to the opioid epidemic. I’d recommend it; it’s a lot deeper and better written than I expected. Bronson’s film may be iconic, but it’s ultimately pretty thin. You can live with skipping it (that goes double for the rest of the series, though cult favorite Death Wish 3 is gonzo). I wasn’t as offended by the remake as our reviewer, A.A. Dowd, was, but it doesn’t bring much to the table and its take on vigilante justice is as shallow as The Boondock Saints. (One promising plot twist, where a copycat vigilante is gunned down, gets maybe 30 seconds of screen time and no reaction from Willis’ Paul.) To the extent that 2018 is the political moment for a story like this, Roth’s remake is not the thoughtful take the subject deserves. For that, if you can’t find the book, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One is probably the best film with a Death Wish-style premise; in a twist with some weight, it’s Jodie Foster in the Bronson role, and it actually explores what supposedly justified killing can do to a person.

Ryan is an A.V. Club contributor. His writing has also appeared in Reuters, MarketWatch, the WSJ, and other outlets. He writes a lot about finance but would rather be talking about books.