Most certainly a product of its time, but not in a good manner at that. Michael Winner’s nihilistic Death Wish is a ruthless film on all counts where it is expected most, but in the end, it never seems to be a film that goes beyond that. That wasn’t the worst thing I found about Death Wish, but it was also difficult enough trying to keep myself staying invested. It was difficult to stay on board with all of the ugliness that was on display, for apparently the philosophy wasn’t what Brian Garfield had intended with his original novel – and that isn’t even the worst part of Death Wish from my own perspective. Perhaps it already has found itself speaking to what America had been going through at the time, but considering how quickly have times changed decades within its own release – it’s clear how much of this does not hold up.
Starring Charles Bronson as the vigilante Paul Kersey, seeking justice after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted, transforming the mild-mannered liberal into a bloodthirsty killer. That alone should set the tone for how ugly the next hour and a half is set to be. The idea of a man going insane as a result of how a society has treated him could show potential for an appealing commentary on the state of how the law treats its own citizens, but soon enough it only plays like a scratched record playing one sound, then getting stuck at one point and repeating everything around it. And this repetition never went anywhere, other than how it was increasingly ruthless to the point of annoyance. I suppose that this was what I was set to expect because of the fact I was watching a story of a man who was driven to take the law into his own hands, but these sorts of vigilante stories present a compelling philosophy which is what Death Wishlacks.
Regardless of the film’s philosophy in regards to how justice should be served, it doesn’t save Death Wish from how mind-numbingly boring it is. The film seems to have a well-written screenplay at hand (not a surprise to me because Wendell Mayes had also written the brilliant Anatomy of a Murder), but Winner isn’t actively trying to find anything to say within the environment that he has created on Death Wish‘s own behalf. Addressing the repetition of the film’s own “message,” there’s no sort of growth into Bronson’s arc that makes Death Wish compelling enough as is. But therein lies the problem, it shows very vague characterizations on both ends whether it be within how we have Kersey going on a racist rampant, and the police just being good at what they do, because they are. Nothing about either side compels me to come closer as opposed to looking away in revolt, because it seems bent on repeating such tidbits in order to sustain a 90-minute length.
But there’s another subplot that comes in, and the way the two narratives present in Death Wish only come together in the most jarring manner. For one, we have the detective who is searching everywhere for Kersey because of the knowledge of his own identity, but the way the film is edited doesn’t establish a tone that make both of these plotlines come together smoothly. One story is relentlessly ugly, and the other even comes out with a form of comic relief, which seems contradictory to the film’s own message about ruthless means to take the law into one’s hands. It seems clear enough that Michael Winner knows how to make his work appear as ugly as it is, because at its worst Death Wish is absolutely unpleasant, and then the supposed “lighter” bits are only indicative of the film’s problem with deciding a tone. For one, this premise could have been written to play out in a satirical manner, but I don’t think Winner had that in mind when making Death Wish – and even if it did, it still fails because of what it revolves within.
Charles Bronson perhaps may be a great screen presence, but nothing about his arc had grabbed me, other than how I only found myself waiting for the film to end all the more. As a matter of fact, I feel like he’s trying his best to emote because I already found enough of that in Once Upon a Time in the West, but it seems to get lost in the ugliness of what Death Wish seems to be pushing forward. It’s clear enough Bronson’s character isn’t really seeking revenge on those who have made his family suffer, he’s taking everything out in an almost needless way. I think there’s a great performance that could come out, and as a matter of fact I think what Bronson’s trying to get out of Kersey may indeed be the very best thing that Death Wish has to offer for its own viewers. Maybe it might as well be within Michael Winner’s means to make Death Wish openly ugly, but it isn’t appealing to my sensibilities.
Whatever meaning Death Wish must have had many years ago, has only faded away over the course of time. The film shows him as a man who needs help but refuses to give him such because it seems so bent on making the ugly side of it so appealing. It isn’t the same sort of nihilism that made a Sam Peckinpah film work as well as it did (Straw Dogs may be a perfect case scenario to bring up when putting another film side by side with this one), it’s just needless, ugly, repetitive, and worst of all, it’s dull. It may have been gritty during the time in which it came out, but you can look at another vigilante film that had come within the same era (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), and it’d be fairly easy to determine which one has aged better. At its worst, Death Wish is ugly, and at its best it’s extremely boring – and the way I’ll take both ends is that I’ll just have neither.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Michael Winner
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes, from the novel by Brian Garfield
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, William Redfield
Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 94 minutes