The UnPopular Opinion: Death Sentence
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Before James Wan was the directing of THE CONJURING and FURIOUS 7, he was not even a name. Back in 2007, he was just "the director of SAW". That horror franchise made tons of money for Lionsgate and pigeon-holed Wan into the horror genre. With DEAD SILENCE, Wan continued his trend of scary movies, but in 2007 he also released a very different type of film in DEATH SENTENCE. A box office failure upon release, DEATH SENTENCE remains the lowest grossing film Wan has helmed to date and yet may be his most ambitious and unique project. Wan is about to tackle his first superhero film and his horror sequel THE CONJURING 2 is making critical waves at the box office, but his little seen revenge thriller starring Kevin Bacon deserves another look from horror and mainstream movie fans alike. This is a film that definitely stretched Wan as a filmmaker and showed he could do more than jump scares and serial murder. This is a good, old-fashioned revenge flick.
Based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, DEATH SENTENCE was originally a sequel to DEATH WISH. That iconic franchise starring Charles Bronson defined the vigilante film and has become synonymous with revenge movies. But, Garfield has repeatedly said that DEATH WISH glorifies vigilantism whereas his novel did not. DEATH SENTENCE takes a much different approach to the material. No longer connected to DEATH WISH, this movie instead shows the pitfalls of vigilante justice as Kevin Bacon's character, Nick Hume, descends into a rampage of vengeance. But, this rampage does not start out as a well planned mission to execute those who took the lives of his family. Rather, James Wan and screenwriter Ian Jeffers give us a tale that is more circumstantial. If anything, DEATH SENTENCE plays like a variation of The Punisher's origin in Marvel Comics. But, Nick Hume is no superhero but rather a regular man put into extreme circumstances. DEATH SENTENCE does beg the question as to what any of us would do in such a situation.
DEATH SENTENCE is a realistic film compared to films like FALLING DOWN and DEATH WISH. In this day and age of terrorist threats and mass shootings, it may not be as enjoyable to watch a man gun down countless people, but there is still a place for films like this. The vast majority of people would never act on the impulses on display in movies like this but we all live voyeuristically through these bloodbaths. But, where those vigilante movies show our protagonist gunning everyone down in a single-minded focus, right or wrong, DEATH SENTENCE offers something much more disturbing. Kevin Bacon is adept at playing an everyman character and in Nick Hume he gives us a father mourning the loss of a son and dealing with the futility of the justice system. When his son's murderer goes free, Hume kills him but never looks content to have done so. In most films, that vengeance would be sweet, but here it is bitter as the dead criminal's brother, played by TRON LEGACY's Garrett Hedlund, exacts his own revenge and takes Hume's wife and puts his other son in a coma.
What follows is Hume's decline from everyman to cold-blooded killer. Physically, Bacon has always been somewhat gaunt, but when he shaves his head, his appearance takes on a skeletal and gruesome look that matches Hedlund's Billy Darley. Seeing Kevin Bacon devolve in this way, and the focus that James Wan puts on this characterization, gives DEATH SENTENCE a strong core that sets it apart from similar movies. It was easy to dismiss this film in theaters as just another generic thriller or another flick from the makers of SAW, but when you revisit DEATH SENTENCE you can easily see that there is more going on in this movie than blood and guts. Wan stepped away from jump scares and cheap horror tactics and instead invested his focus on what could happen to any of us if pushed over the edge. Granted, this is still a movie and the odds of someone enduring events like this in real life are slim, but the suspension of disbelief needed here is very minor. This film is disturbingly plausible.
This movie also carries with it a code of ethics, as twisted as they may be. The catalyst for the film's events is the murder of Brendan Hume, carried out by Joe Darley (Matt O'Leary) as an initiation into his older brother's gang. Then, the death of Joe leads Billy to exact his own revenge on Nick Hume and his family. In the end, the actions of both sides comes down to the approval of gun dealer Bones, played by an always excellent John Goodman. Bones, who also happens to be the father of Billy and Joe, determines that his son's actions warrant the eye for an eye quest of Nick Hume. A father allowing the death of his son is a haunting proposition but also one that fits into this twisted world. We have heard crazier things in the news recently that doesn't make this seem so outlandish, but the Shakespearan tragedy that unfolds in DEATH SENTENCE makes it as dramatic as it is thrilling. It also examines the meaning of morality in a world consumed by death.
Much like THE CONJURING films, DEATH SENTENCE has multiple layers to it. On a first viewing, you can focus purely on the action elements of the film and enjoy it as a roller coaster of guns and explosions. But, a deeper analysis opens up DEATH SENTENCE as so much more. This is a film that can be taken as an example of why the preponderance of gun violence in the United States must be dealt with. The actions of our "hero" may seem noble in an antiquated sense of the word, but what do his actions bring down on the innocent bystanders around him? In a less political light, DEATH SENTENCE can be seen as a psychological look at what trauma can do to someone who doesn't exert any deviant behavior. Can a man be forced to descend into the evil he is trying to stop? Aside from all of that, you can watch DEATH SENTENCE as an evolution in the skills of James Wan. The courtroom scene alone is proof enough that Wan should be given much more to work with than summer blockbusters and genre movies.
DEATH SENTENCE is not for the squeamish or the weak of heart. But, in many ways it should be viewed by those who would otherwise turn their nose at such extreme violence. James Wan never treats the death on screen as a joke or something to laugh at but he also doesn't wallow in the guts. Yes, there is death and a lot of gore here, but it is the buckets of blood that represents the stakes that a single death can represent for those involved. It also makes it clear that the death of one will always lead to the death of many more. Wan definitely drives home Brian Garfield's intended message that vigilantism is stupid and carries with it so much more. I do not think many people will leave watching this movie unchanged. I know that on repeated viewings, DEATH SENTENCE is still not an enjoyable film but not all movies should be fun. Some movies should punch you in the gut and make you think about what you just saw. This movie does just that.
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|Extra Tidbit:||Thanks to Jay Lenderman for the recommendation for this column.|