Michael Winner’s 1974 Death Wish poses a problem — can the complacent, permissive liberalism embodied by its hero, architect Paul Kersey, withstand the wrenching changes that gripped American cities in the 1970s? The film’s answer is “no,” as we witness Kersey transform, bit by bit, into a one-man judge, jury, and executioner. As a night-stalking vigilante, Kersey discards any trappings of due process or societal consensus in favor of an atavistic notion of justice that sows fear through simple, brutal revenge. As the bodies pile up, Kersey finds that many New Yorkers are ready to follow him and to reject the permissiveness of postwar liberalism embodied by the procedural revolution enacted by the Warren Supreme Court, which leveraged an expansive reading of the Bill of Rights to safeguard the rights of accused criminals (narrowing the options for police seeking to enforce their own version of the status quo), as well as the newly assertive social movements that thrust previously marginalized people to the forefront of American political life during the tumultuous 1960s.
The combination of these startling changes with an economy veering towards crisis made 1970s American cities very anxious places. Death Wish reflected this anxiety and posed a fantastical solution drawn from its thematic forebears in the American westerns in which its star, the laconic and heavily-muscled Charles Bronson, had previously specialized.
The politics of the first Death Wish are crudely drawn. Kersey is “such a bleeding-heart liberal,” his co-worker Sam informs him after Kersey returns from Hawaiian vacation to a city in the grip of a crime wave. “My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged, yeah,” Kersey replies, softly and without much conviction. “The underprivileged are beating our god damn brains out!” thunders Sam, who casually floats concentration camps as a solution to the way in which poverty and its consequences seemed to repeatedly spill across the boundaries of class and geography in the 1970s American city.
Within a few minutes of screen time, Kersey’s abstract sympathies will be tested by an act that is horrifyingly concrete. A group of criminals, played less as intelligible human beings than pack of feral, nearly pre-verbal barbarians, follow Kersey’s wife and daughter home from an Upper West Side supermarket and gleefully commit an unspeakably brutal gang rape and murder that leaves Kersey’s wife dead and his daughter comatose. After the attack, a despondent Kersey is shocked and frustrated by a police department that seems to be unable to help — in the city, “that’s the way it is,” sighs a nonplussed detective. Depressed and largely consigned to his apartment, Kersey witnesses a wanton car break-in from his window, and decides if the police can’t handle the crime wave, it’s time for him to take matters into his own hands. Kersey takes to the streets, graduating quickly from a roll of quarters concealed in a sock to more deadly forms of firepower, and soon pivots from defense to offense, seeking out muggers on his nightly forays and, in a series of confrontations that evoke Old West standoffs, blowing them away.
Death Wish was a surprise hit, much to the horror of critics like the New York Times’s Vincent Canby, who sat aghast as “lunatic cheers” echoed throughout the old Loews theater on Astor Place. “That’ll show the mothers!” shouted one of Canby’s fellow theatergoers.
But who were “the mothers?” Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Kersey is an unconventional vigilante. Inexplicably Kersey abandons any effort to locate the three “freaks” who actually committed the crime. Nor do the freaks — “Freak One” (Jeff Goldblum in his first film role), “Freak Two,” and “Spray-can Freak” — get names, stories, or an intelligible motive beyond a kind of ecstatic glee in disordering boundaries of class and morality that have become dangerously permeable in decline-and-fall-era New York. Kersey’s beef, we learn, is with the city itself — its proliferating cast of scumbags, the police who can’t stop them, politicians who effectively side with the criminals, and a populace either too scared to fight back or, like the old Kersey, lulled into tolerance by a prosperity that will increasingly fail to protect them from the barbarians.
Critics, most of whom hated the film, noted how its New York felt eerie and dreamlike, pitched in a nightmare register augmented by Herbie Hancock’s disconcerting score, all anxious rhythms and discordant stabs. “This doesn’t look like 1974,” wrote Roger Ebert, “but like one of those bloody future cities in science-fiction novels about anarchy in the twenty-first century.” Winner’s New York was less a concrete place than an idea, a paranoia-inducing backdrop for a film that, unlike its more prosaic cousin Dirty Harry, trafficked in archetypes borrowed from American westerns and Greek tragedy, but mounted them in a contemporary city that by 1974 had become, as Canby wrote, “a metaphor for the last days of American civilization.”
Death Wish, then, is a law-and-order film. But it is more precisely a film about the breakdown of law and order, and above all a film that cries out for a new kind of law, prefigured in Kersey’s unexpectedly popular killing spree. The police are helpless and the politicians worse, bound by a cowardly liberal law that has diverged dangerously from the real purpose of society — order. “What about the old American custom of self-defense?” Kersey asks his son-in-law Jack, a parody of nebbish, gutless liberalism (in Brian Garfield’s source novel, literally a legal-aid attorney). “We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad,” Jack scolds his father-in-law. “If we’re not pioneers, what have we become?” Kersey persists. “What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it — they just run and hide?” “Civilized?” Jack retorts. Throw in Kersey’s trip to Arizona, where the effete city-dweller is tutored by a yahoo real-estate developer in the finer points of vengeance and gifted the Colt revolver he will shortly use to annihilate muggers, and you get the basic architecture of Death Wish. It’s Antigone for reactionaries, filtered through the conventions of the American western, garnished with the trappings of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, and set in the city that has long represented for many Americans an unholy amalgam of Sodom, Babel, and Dante’s Inferno. And by the mid-1970s, New York City seemed to be living up to this reputation.
“Crime is a police responsibility,” intones a smug but feckless police commissioner at a news conference designed to squelch the relentless media attention that has vaulted the “Vigilante Killer” to folk-hero status. “If this person is listening to my voice” — and Kersey is, chuckling in a restaurant where, like everywhere else, he is the main topic of conversation — “I urge him in the name of law and order to desist from this one-man crusade and turn himself in,” presumably so the police can resume their rightful role. Behind closed doors, things are different. The commissioner and the district attorney, having identified Kersey as the vigilante, are primarily concerned with saving their own skin and won’t risk the unpopular move of arresting him. Moreover, fearing war in the streets (“we’d have vigilantes out in the street killing anyone who even looked greasy”), they instruct the investigator in charge of the case to conceal the fact that muggings have been cut in half by Kersey’s unorthodox deterrence strategy. Just get the vigilante to go away, they tell him. For the sake of preserving the status quo, they’ll take the crime.
Death Wish is careful not to appear bigoted — a virtual rainbow coalition of muggers targets New Yorkers, both rich and poor, black and white. But in declining to explore in any detail the components of the social order Kersey works so hard to defend — the economic exploitation, patriarchal domination, and white supremacy that ignited the social movements of the 1960s — and simply opting to repress the symptoms of social disorder with brute force, the film clearly marked itself as reactionary, and its message was not lost on audiences. Moreover, that message dovetailed with contemporary campaigns waged by partisans of a new kind of law enforcement that could restore the comfortable hierarchies that defined pre-civil rights America. In New York, these grassroots authoritarians were the police themselves.
For over a decade before the famous “Fear City” pamphlet advertised the New York Police Department as the only force standing between New York and a Hobbesian state of nature, the NYPD had been amplifying the “law and order” rhetoric of George Wallace and Richard Nixon, campaigning openly against the gains of the Warren Court, the Civil Rights Movement, and its more radical offshoots. Throughout the 1960s the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) transformed itself from a lobbying organization beholden to the mayor into a powerful and independent player in the city’s political scene, capable of antagonizing the mayor and undertaking illegal workplace actions. New York’s cops first came alive as a political force in 1966, defying an attempt to overhaul the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and place it in the hands of actual civilians, including black and brown activists.
The anti-CCRB campaign pitted PBA’s president John Cassese, a mere patrolman, against the likes of Robert F. Kennedy and Mayor John Lindsay — with the patrolman victorious, thanks to the generous application of racial dog whistles and a few train whistles for good measure. The image of a disordered city rife with dangerous minorities who feared only the brute force of the policeman’s club was promoted by the PBA and its allies with great effect, setting the stage for a period of social unrest that would end with the police in uncontested control of New York City. But even the unprecedented rise of the PBA to prominence as an organized representative of white reaction was not fast enough for its membership, some of whom formed the even more radical Law Enforcement Group. In 1968 key members of this group, presaging Kersey, partook in the violent attack of a group of Black Panthers and their supporters in broad daylight at a Brooklyn courthouse by a mob of off-duty cops 150 strong, all of whom, like Kersey, escaped with no charges filed. If the law could not enforce order, vigilantism just might have to.
It wasn’t only New York. In this period, American police departments from coast to coast, in tandem with right-wing politicians and the tabloid press, stoked the legitimate public anxiety that had built across decades of widespread social upheaval, to depict US cities, with New York at their vanguard, as living nightmares, the logical outcome of permissive liberalism, for which there was only one remedy — force, inside or outside the law. The old-guard, patriarchal, white power structure was to reassert itself, or civilization itself would collapse. A growing subset of white Americans, and some nonwhite Americans too, threw in their lot with the forces of law and order, supporting strict drug laws, the expansion of the role of the police in society, widespread tax cuts and attendant cuts to social services and public-sector employment, and other ingredients for the rise of mass incarceration. The pact they made called for order at all costs: cost that included civil liberties, social services, and in the case of New York, the right to the city itself, which was wrested from working-class people and placed further into the hands of real estate and finance capital, repurposed into an over-policed playground for the elite. The ideology of law and order, cutting as it did to the core of all-too-real social anxiety forcing Americans to accept an ugly new reality, was easy pickings for exploitation cinema.
The genius of “law and order” as a political rallying cry in the early 1970s was its amalgamation of a variety of disparate phenomena — black and brown power, student radicalism, feminism, counterculture, drugs, elevated crime rates, the sexual revolution, and other symptoms of a profound and unsettling social transformation — into a figure that was at once utterly abstract yet viscerally concrete in the stomach of every American profoundly unsettled by the speed and quality of the social transformations afoot. In both Britain and America, this unease coalesced in the figure of the mugger, the evil at the heart of Death Wish and a kind of social bogeyman into which fearful conservatives poured “suppressed, distorted, or unexpressed responses to thirty years of unsettling social change,” in the words of cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his co-authors, whose Policing the Crisis is the best account of the crime panics of the early 1970s.
Michael Winner, the “poor little rich boy” son of a London real-estate developer and lifelong conservative, whose school reports pronounced him “spoilt” and “craving for power which he is trying to achieve by the use of his money,” and who upon his death ordered his memorial service held at the Police Memorial Trust he founded in 1984, possessed an intuitive understanding of how this social panic worked. In Death Wish, he adroitly exploited these anxieties by staying true to their inchoate form. “Cunts!” Freak One declares, in his most articulate moment, “I kill rich cunts!” The freaks appear in Death Wish not as individual human beings but as a virtual force of nature — the threat they pose is severe precisely to the degree that it is abstract and fundamental. They appear drawn directly from Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers: “We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young… We are the forces of chaos and anarchy / Everything they say we are we are / And we are very proud of ourselves.”
With its presentation of serial murder as a righteous project of self-actualization, Death Wish lent its reactionary message a kind of chic edginess and became a totem for right-wingers from the supporters of real-life subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz to the alt-right bloggers of today, one of whom even dubs himself Paul Kersey. While the reactionary political message of Kersey’s vigilante rampage may have more resonance in US politics today than it has for decades, American cities for the most part are a lot different than the Hobbesian wastelands that so fired the imagination of 1970s exploitation filmmakers. It’s not so much that the fundamentals have changed — the poverty and inequality that so marked that decade have, if anything, deepened, and they continue to be dealt out along racial lines. What has changed is that their consequences have been rearranged to protect the well-off from suffering any collateral damage.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, while an unleashed financial sector resurrected New York’s economy, newly aggressive policing safeguarded the real-estate investment that has swelled the city’s tax coffers while pushing out its poorest residents through gentrification. The police cracked down not only on actual crimes, but on the lifestyles of the city’s poor, which were criminalized with laws enforced far more enthusiastically and viciously than those preventing white-collar crime, helping to turn large swaths of the city into a simulacrum of the suburbs to which its whiter and wealthier residents had once fled. A version of Sam’s concentration camps for the poor actually did come to pass in the form of mass incarceration, as New York’s very own penal island swelled with the ranks of the city’s poor, where scarcely a white face could be found. Over the forty years since its release, the howl of Death Wish for a new kind of law has been fulfilled.
Nonetheless, Hollywood, feeding its present addiction for reboots, has seen fit to give us a new Death Wish, helmed by torture-porn maestro Eli Roth. The only problem is that given the profound rightward shifts in American political and social life since the 1970s, which have turned cities into sites of re-conquest by the white and wealthy, the story no longer makes any damn sense. If the politics of the first Death Wish are crude and schematic, the second simply has none, which may explain why it feels like such an eclectic mess. Absent any animating force, Roth has had to convert Death Wish into a garden-variety revenge thriller — a Liam Neeson dad-revenge movie that happens, for marketing purposes, to be called Death Wish. In the end, Roth’s Death Wish is effectively a victim of the success of Winner’s; the triumph of the values that animated the original make the 2018 remake pointless and banal.
Roth sets Death Wish in Chicago, capitalizing on that city’s highly publicized murder rate, which stands in contrast to New York, Los Angeles, and most other American cities in which major crimes have been on the wane since the 1990s. Chicago is therefore probably the only major American city in which a remake of Death Wish wouldn’t be laughable on its face. In another shift, Roth’s Kersey, played competently if without enthusiasm by Bruce Willis, is no longer an architect but an emergency-room surgeon whose work consists mainly in prying bullets out of the city’s endless stream of shooting victims. Kersey’s new occupation, like his new city of residence, is a plot device to make Death Wish work in an era in which it no longer has much to say. Winner’s Kersey needed merely to step outside his well-heeled apartment to be besieged by muggers. Roth’s, on the other hand, inhabits a highly segregated metropolis. The closest Dr Kersey gets to the carnage of Chicago’s streets is treating its victims in the ER, to which the virtual suburbanite Kersey, who inhabits with his family a McMansion on the tony North Shore, commutes in his late-model Mercedes. Roth and company try to bridge the gap by tossing in a lone squeegee man, that legendary avatar of yesteryear’s urban blight. But this lone point of contact with the mean streets only underscores the glaring fact that if Roth’s Kersey were still an architect, he would just be just watching the violence of Chicago’s hyper-segregated black ghettos on his flat-screen like most other white Americans.
Winner’s Kersey was called, reluctantly at first, to violence. Roth’s, on the other hand, has to be a little more proactive in order to find any lawlessness to avenge. Traversing a deeply segregated city, he lands mainly in nonwhite neighborhoods where he stands out like a sore thumb, even when he dons the hooded sweatshirt that gets him memed into oblivion as the “Grim Reaper.” Roth’s movie might have made more sense had it featured a black Kersey, who had remained in his neighborhood while it degenerated into nightly gang shootings, and became willing to take a stand against gang violence on behalf of the respectable middle class. Such a film could have resuscitated some of the relevance if not the moral complexity of the original. But the schlocky Roth is not the director for such a task, and the movie is instead a hodge-podge of half-baked genre cliches and action scenes directed with mind-numbing competence. Roth tries to purchase some authenticity with a soundtrack that features contemporary Chicago musicians like Chief Keef, punctuated with intermittent commentary from hip-hop radio hosts who beg the audience on Roth’s behalf to not reject the film based solely on a white guy in a hoodie shooting black people, to paraphrase one who states the painfully obvious.
The inevitable home invasion that triggers Kersey’s transformation doesn’t make much sense in Roth’s telling. In the original, the freaks encounter Mrs. Kersey at an Upper West Side supermarket they patronize in common, and finding her address on a delivery bag, take a short trip to the Kersey’s residence on foot. In Roth’s film, Freak One is reborn as Miguel, a Latino valet who overhears the Kerseys discussing forthcoming dinner plans. Improbably, Miguel gleans their address from their car’s GPS, and transmits this information to a burglary crew targeting the North Shore in a beat-up van which they park with ease in front of their target’s homes on affluent streets. A throwaway line reveals that police and local media knew of these burglaries but didn’t deign to publicize them, a half-hearted gesture to the political decadence undergirding the original film that Roth can’t bring himself to pursue any further.
Prior to the home invasion, Dr Kersey has no political convictions or character complexity besides loving his family, accepting with equanimity contemporary shifts in the American bourgeois lifestyle (smartphones, emails, his daughter eschewing Northwestern for — where else? — NYU), and declining to fight another dad on the soccer field, a lazy gesture toward the more full-fleshed transformation undergone by his 1970s counterpart. In contrast to their resourceless 1970s forebears, the Chicago police characters are competent and well-resourced, unencumbered by politics. They assure Dr Kersey that unlike the “asshole-on-asshole crime” that accounts for Chicago’s high murder rate, cases like his wife’s murder are relatively rare and almost always solved. They seem to really mean it.
There is no soft-on-crime politician or district attorney in Roth’s film, because such a character no longer exists. There is no mainstream press oozing sympathy for the dangerous classes, because even liberal newspapers have long embraced law and order, and the chorus of drive-time hip-hop radio, though sometimes divided, can’t throw its support behind the Reaper. Kersey’s neighborhood has not fallen to crime; the climatic shootout with the villains, who inexplicably return to the scene of the crime seeking vengeance of their own, is laughable in an idyllic suburban setting, as is Kersey’s salvation by way of an assault rifle concealed in a piece of “tactical furniture,” amusing in its fantastical excess and its abandonment of any alibi of self-parody.
While the strongest aspect of the original film is the moral quandary it presents to New Yorkers in the grip of a self-understood crime epidemic, Kersey’s summary execution of undesirables is no longer condemnable in itself, but is merely denounced because it is not being done by the police, who have made something of a sport out of shooting young black men in American cities, and like Kersey, skirting justice every time. With society largely ordered around the values espoused by the original — after all, Chicago’s crime wave is only assholes shooting assholes — Roth’s Kersey has nothing to lament but a case of bad luck. Roth eschews the abstract, mythical qualities of the first Death Wish for something much more ordinary, compelled by necessity.
Despite the incomprehensibility of Roth’s Death Wish, its appearance at this moment in time does make a measure of sense. The 2008 economic crisis struck deep at the prosperity on which America’s pact with law and order has been contingent. The feel-good neoliberal wave of hope and change that carried Obama to the White House broke on the shore of inequality deepening across and within racial lines, ushering in the Occupy Wall Street movement and its subsequent appropriation by the fringes of the Democratic Party under Bernie Sanders, contemporaneous with the more auspicious rise of a new generation of self-proclaimed “socialists.” Meanwhile, on the violent underside of the law-and-order pact, the Ferguson rebellion and ensuing movement against racialized policing confronted Americans with stark images of black radicalism and multiracial solidarity confronting naked state repression the likes of which the country hadn’t seen in decades. The specter of social disorder is once more threatening America’s racialized social order.
Movements against mass incarceration, militarized law enforcement, and summary executions by police have forced the ideology of law and order, unquestioned on such a scale for decades, to account for itself in daylight. Even a flummoxed Hillary Clinton was forced to specify just what she meant when she called black kids a bunch of “super-predators.” In response to these cracks in the law-and-order consensus, a rising tide of white reaction has come running to the aid of social order, willing to blames the scapegoats of the law-and-order pact, not the pact itself, for their own miserable lot. In the process, they are reheating the decades-old canards underlying Winner’s Death Wish — which even a director as shameless as Roth could not in good conscience impute to the present.
The original concludes famously with Kersey, run out of town by the canny police inspector, relocating to Chicago. Upon arriving he spots a group of young toughs accosting a young woman at the train station. He forms a gun with his finger, takes aim at the young men, and grinning, pulls the trigger. We know what’s coming next (and in case we didn’t, four brainless sequels kept us in the loop). In Roth’s retelling, Kersey relocates to — of course — New York City. He has followed his daughter to NYU, where he will be “three stops away” from West 4th Street. What nefarious crimes will Kersey avenge in contemporary Greenwich Village? Parting ways with his daughter, he spots a thief swiping a piece of luggage off an unattended cart. Kersey forms his hand into the shape of a gun, and POW! The absurdity of Roth’s undertaking is at once revealed.