Viking Night: Death Wish
By Bruce Hall
February 12, 2013
Once upon a time, there were two thousand murders and fifty thousand assaults a year in New York City. Nobody was nice to anybody else, the cabbies were rude, the Yankees sucked and the subways were dirty. It’s enough to make you wonder whether everyone wouldn’t be better off taking the law into their own hands. But would that truly be a polite society, or just a lawless one? The police can’t be everywhere, so everyone should have the right to defend themselves - but how far is too far?
If those seem like the kind of weighty questions that might make a great movie, you’re absolutely correct. Just don’t expect to see them pursued very seriously in Michael Winner’s revenge classic, Death Wish. Winner takes a cursory stab at it, using some quick establishing shots of a happy husband and wife on vacation before quickly returning to New York, dotted with row after row of decaying tenements, all filled with desperate criminals and long suffering innocents.
Islands good. City bad. Got it? Good.
The husband in question is Paul Kersey, a soft spoken architect who lives with his wife (Hope Lange) in a cozy Manhattan apartment. He’s just an ordinary guy with an ordinary office job, trying to make ends meet in a city choked with crime. Of course, because he’s played by Charles Bronson, Paul is built like a UFC striker and has a soldier’s thousand yard stare permanently etched onto his face. Both things will come in very handy later - but let’s not skip ahead.
While the Kerseys were on vacation, the crime rate in New York seems to have tripled. Dozens of people a week are being slaughtered by vicious street gangs that look fresh off a Mad Max casting call. It’s a little over the top, and in fact a brief, expository conversation near the top of the film is one of the last times you'll see Death Wish attempt to legitimately address the real world underpinnings of its plot. Unlike his coworkers, Paul is portrayed as a closet liberal who pities the less fortunate and tries his best to understand the root causes behind crime.
His beliefs are tested when his wife and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) are the victims of a home invasion, led by someone who looks an awful lot like Jeff Goldblum. When he arrives at the hospital with his son-in-law (Steven Keats), Paul discovers that his wife is dead and his daughter has been the victim of a horrifying sexual assault. He struggles to find justice through conventional means, but there's only so much ground the police can cover in a city of millions. Meanwhile, his daughter remains badly traumatized and his home feels like a tomb without the woman he loves.
He buries himself in his work. Then, on a business trip to Arizona, he spends some quality time with a client who happens to be a gun nut enthusiast. They have a Red State moment, during which Paul discovers some of the many explosive options available to those who wish to solve their problems through unconventional means. Suddenly, it turns out all that pansy liberal talk was a smokescreen. Just like that, Paul Kersey turns out to be a murder machine who can put a bullet up a June bug’s ass at 300 yards. He acquires a gleaming new hand cannon, which he casually carries through airport security because it's 1974. The film largely abandons objectivity to take up a darker, more controversial posture.