Please Take Away My Goddamn MoviePass: Death Wish

Posted March 7, 2018 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Movies

Any number of critics can tell you all about the numerous failings of Eli Roth’s Death Wish reboot. A phoned-in performance from Bruce Willis, bland action sequences, poor cinematography, a script so far in the toilet you may need to get out the plunger… the list goes on. It’s a terrible film. Using this space to write about the technical reason it’s bad, however, would be a waste. I could do it, but other critics already have.

So instead, we’re going to have a little chat about policy. Yay!

First, I need to set the stage a little bit. Death Wish follows surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) following a break-in that results in the death of his wife and serious injury of his daughter. Set in Chicago, Kersey takes matters into his owns hands, beginning a violent crusade to find the killers and avenge his daughter.

Nothing wrong with a good revenge story, right?

Well… it’s a fair bit more complicated, once you take a step back and consider the current political climate and debates surrounding firearms, policing, and violence. The setting is key–Chicago has become something of a talking point, invoked heavily by Donald Trump as justification for stepping up policing. Death Wish takes a similar tact, positing a solution that involves a white man shooting a bunch of brown men until the situation is resolved.

Or, in the words of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Of course, this is a fallacy, but more on that a little later. For now, it’s key that we spend a little more time looking at the film’s portrayal of Chicago, and how problematic it is.

First and foremost, it presents the city as increasingly violent. Talk shows, interspersed between scenes of Willis’ character shooting up “bad guys” cast the city in a depressing light, trapped in cyclical violence. There are two problems with this:

  1. The film ignores the social conditions that have led to widespread violence, instead choosing to simplify them in a way that is easily interpreted as racist.


  1. Violence and homicide rates in Chicago, while still high, have been on the decline in recent years.

Yes–Chicago saw a nearly 20% decline in homicides in 2017. Even better, the first two months of 2018 have seen that trend continue. Furthermore, simple quantities do not paint an accurate picture. The homicides per capita statistic offers far more utility in measuring killings. When utilizing this statistic, Chicago is ranked 8th in the country, below even Washington, DC, the nation’s capital.

Now, none of this is to say that everything in Chicago is fine. In fact, I am a proponent of pursuing policies to ensure the decline continues. However, none of these policies involve violence. Instead, increased funding for social programs, especially in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighborhoods, is essential. Furthermore, rolling back strict drug policies that incentivize certain criminal behaviors (including homicides) could put a dent in violent crime rates.

Not only are these solutions preferable to the future posited by Death Wish–in which we can only solve violent crime through more violent crime–they are likely more effective. Killing a bunch of criminals in violent, gruesome ways doesn’t solve the problem. Perhaps it made Willis’ character feel good (though I can’t tell, considering the abysmal performance he gave), but that isn’t a solution. It’s a problem most vigilante narratives run into. Hell, even Batman has been forced to grapple with the inefficacy of his vigilantism.

The explanation can be boiled down to a simple idea: the American Dream is a lie, at least for the vast majority of individuals. “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a myth propagated by the right and center-left. Of course, there is a broader discussion to be had here about funding, social safety nets, and policing.

The point is this: whatever systems have been put in place to ensure individuals have the tools necessary for success are absent in many parts of the country. In several areas, America has failed to adapt in a way that accounts for the most disadvantaged among us. Public education is an underfunded joke, private education is too expensive to be a legitimate option for too many people, and private prisons incentivize strict penal codes.

When the problem is systemic, it doesn’t matter how many “bad guys” you kill. In the case of Death Wish, it’s not even clear everyone who dies is even a bad person. Some of them are, to be sure. But others are clearly victims of circumstance forced to commit vile acts because social structures have failed them. Even if you killed everyone who committed a crime, more would take their place.

Until legislation addresses these systemic issues, there can’t be change. And as long as firearms are easier to attain than cars, armed violence is going to remain a problem. Death Wish asks the viewer to forget all of that and continue to exist in the current status quo, falling back on and affirming harmful right-wing and NRA talking points.

About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.