Tuesday, September 04, 2007

REVIEW: Death Sentence (2007)

Mild Spoilers.

'Round these parts, when one enters a room and notices among it's denizens an elephant, it's considered polite to acknowledge him (the elephant in the room) first, just to get it out of the way.

So, then, about politics and "Death Sentence." This is a "you hurt my family, now I hurt you"/take-the-law-into-your-own-hands vigilante vengeance movie about a suburban family man who, failed by "the system," opts to take the fight personally to the vile inner-city street gang that murdered his son using a literal bagful of guns. It's poster-slogan is "Protect What's Yours." Any way you slice it, possibly by intent and definately by execution, this winds up as a merger of "zero tolerance is the only deterent" urban-crime nightmare fused with a "right to bear arms" frontier-justice fantasy - as almost all such stories are when told with sincerity or, at least, intellectual honesty.

Depending on where you fall on the "gun issue" and to what degree you can divorce your personal belief in this regard from the analysis of what isn't really a "message movie" will have a lot to do with how you end up assessing the film: Too many of the virulently pro-gun are likely to elevate it into something that it isn't, while a smattering of those virulently anti-gun will certainly react as though director James Wan had just burned a cross on their front lawn. And they'll both be missing the overall merits of the film, chiefly the way in which it asks the audience to indulge in the fantasy of metting-out shotgun justice on their enemies but also shoves them headlong into confrontation with the logical toll such actions can take on a person. It's exploitation with a brain... that it uses to figure out how to become even more exploitative.

Kevin Bacon, his simmering intensity somehow ramped up even higher here than it was in "The Woodsman," has the Charles Bronson role as the suburban dad with the perfect family: Lovely wife (Kelly Preston), two great kids (one an artistic type, the eldest a varsity hockey star), a slick V.P. job at an insurance firm in the Big City and a quaint lil' house as far away from urban jungle as it can be. All of this is shattered, you will be unsurprised to learn, when Dad and Number One Son make the mistake of stopping for gas in the blighted inner-city after dark and the local gang of psycho-thugs turn up looking for an "initiation kill" for their newest recruit. Exit Number One Son.

In the first of a few interesting mini-twists on the well-worn "Death Wish" formula, Dad is already so enraged at the murder of his son that he doesn't even give "the system" a chance to fail him: When he learns that the killer may only get, at best, a short sentence; he opts out of the trial, tracks the guy down on his own and takes his eye for an eye. Unfortunately, he's not exactly a killer by trade, so the act itself freaks him right the hell out and sends him on a slow but innevitable train to Crazy Town. More unfortunately, his prey was also the younger brother of the gang's leader, and he and the whole "family" (irony!) take the killing as an act of war that they are all too happy to answer. So, there's your movie: Vigilante-justice sets off a full-blown shooting war between The Burbs and The Hood.

This is, we all realize, well-worn cinematic ground. And while it wisely avoids an overindulgence in reference or homage "Death Sentence" lives openly in the shadow of cut and dry "they-pushed-him-too-far" revenge thriller titans like "Death Wish" and "Vigilante." What distinguishes it, eventually, seems to come from a willingness to chase the darkness that Wan has brought with him from his more familiar horror work: Most "serious" films in this vein are willing to end in the comfort of ambiguity over "where it all MIGHT end," but Wan and Bacon are prepared to pull the audience down in the deepest, darkest waters of the revenge thriller pool... the waters where "Taxi Driver" and "Straw Dogs" swim. Ironically, this provides the "realistic consequences" that the genre's most strident critics most-frequently rail for- but in doing so it "crosses a line" that most of those same critics simply will not be able to handle.

This kind of movie is the squeamish critic's worst nightmare: It's absolute, balls-to-the-wall, brutal, punishing, attention-demanding stuff... but it's ALSO smart, well-made, sincere and excellently-acted - so they can't couch their "I just couldn't take it" review in the veneer of more analytical criticism. "Saw" already showed that Wan was a prodigy at visceral onscreen-terror, "Death Sentence" hints that, with the right projects, he could have the makings of another David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoven.