Having caught an advance screening of Death Wish last week out of pure morbid curiosity, we have to ask—did we watch the same movie as Eli Roth did? Because in a new interview with EW, the director of the Death Wish remake—in which Bruce Willis plays a successful Chicago surgeon who gets cucked when his daughter and wife are attacked in a home invasion, and must un-cuck himself through murdering carjackers and the like—says that the movie is “not pro-gun.” This is despite the fact that Bruce Willis is celebrated in the film, and in the film’s marketing, for carrying out vigilante justice with a variety of firearms, including a semi-automatic weapon he keeps hidden inside a coffee table. Instead, Roth says, “what I really try to do more than anything is show it how it really is, and leave it for the audience to decide.”
Except the idea that Death Wish “shows it how it really is” is up for debate. In the film, Chicago is depicted as a lawless hellhole of gun violence with an extremely high murder rate. Yes, the city has seen a rise in gang-related violence over the past decade or so, but if anyone tells you that Chicago is the “murder capital” of America, they are incorrect: The city’s murder rate actually comes in behind cities like St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Cleveland when adjusted for population. So why set the new Death Wish in Chicago? Because “Chicago = crime” is a common conservative talking point, presumably.
Roth also says in his interview that he accepted an offer to remake the movie because “so many of the same problems that were plaguing the country [when the first Death Wish came out in 1974]—that crime is out of control and police are overwhelmed and there’s no way to stop it — still feel very relevant today. It feels like however far we’ve gone in other areas, we have not progressed in terms of crime.” But we have. Even EW feels compelled to call Roth’s bluff on this one, noting that overall crime rates have decreased substantially since the ‘70s and that “the violent crime rate for 2017 was the lowest recorded since 1990.”
What has increased since the ‘70s is the number of right-wing media outlets—not to mention local TV news—stirring up white America’s fears of scary, gun-toting people of color, referred to by the dog-whistle catchall term “criminals,” for ratings. Roth at least partially brings the racial politics of his remake into the 21st century by showing Willis as a defender of black Chicagoans as well as white ones, and by making the main gang that terrorizes his family white. But you don’t have to have a PhD in literary theory to pick up on the subtext of dialogue referring to “criminals”—most of whom, shown in the background lurking on street corners and in dark alleys, are black and Latino—as “animals” and “assholes” throughout the film.
With that in mind, Roth’s repeated invocations of “family” in the interview—“I wanted to really make it about family, and stick to the central issue of what would you do if this happened to your family,” he says at one point, and later, “The movie for me really is about family and protecting your family and what do you do when you can’t get justice for your family?”—take on an unsettling subtext of “us” (Bruce Willis and his white family) vs. “them” (the aforementioned “criminals”). We’re not sure of Roth’s personal politics—his movies have been making a slow drift to the right over the years— but if he didn’t mean to make a pro-gun movie, his grasp of subtext is terrible. Not that that should be news to anyone.