Sunday, March 13, 2011

Moment To Moment: Death Sentence (2007)

Surreptitiously based upon Brian Garfield's sequel to his Death WishDeath Sentence ejects nearly everything but its source's title. In place of the original story screenwriter Ian Jeffers has constructed a tale that resembles Death Wish—in the way that just about every story about vigilante street justice resembles Death Wish—and, quite possibly without ever realizing it, injects a metafictional element that is best evinced by the movie's oddly moving and satisfying denouement. Following the climax of the movie's ultimate battle, a blazing three-way gunfight, the Good Guy (Kevin Bacon) and the Bad Guy (Garrett Hedlund) settle down in a handy pew, both wounded (the Good Guy in the neck, recalling the wound DeNiro's Travis Bickle received in the final gunfight in Taxi Driver; the Bad Guy in the gut) and likely dead without swift medical treatment.

The Bad Guy turns to the Good Guy and whispers: "You look like one of us! Look at what I made you!" This last is accompanied by a smile both smug and satisfied; the Bad Guy is obviously pleased at having brought the Good Guy down to his level (or he could be pleased by the fact that the Good Guy is a much more interesting fellow, now that he has been blooded in battle).

Then, in a moment so remarkable in what could otherwise have been just another bloody revenge flick, the Good Guy draws from inside his jacket a nickel plated .357 Magnum revolver, lays it on his leg, and thumbs back the hammer: ka-klik! He raises his eyes to meet the Bad Guy's and croaks: "Ready?"

The Good Guy has had an epiphany: he understands that he is trapped within a bloody revenge film and, try as he might, he is doomed to play out this scenario to its ultimate, blood-soaked conclusion. Kevin Bacon's face hangs in sorrow, his eyes shrinkwrapped in tears: if he does not perform this last act of revenge he will be forever trapped—perhaps this is the true meaning of the movie's title.

In a moment equally remarkable, the Bad Guy returns the Good Guy's gaze with a mysterious expression; neither spitting poison in the face of his executioner, nor begging for life and forgiveness. Like a Greek warrior he is silent, stoic, having prepared himself for this death. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, this quiet acceptance of his fate could bode well for his future incarnations: he has actually transcended his life and learnings and is on the verge of experiencing a greater truth. He nods assent to the Good Guy without nodding.

And, in a final moment worthy of remarking upon, the camera pulls away, the scene fades away and we next see the Good Guy exiting the battleground to return to what is left of his life. This, without the brutal punctuation of a gunshot to let us know that the deed has been done; we know that is has, but are denied that audible punch in the gut to confirm beyond any doubt that it is at last over.

A prospective distributor for Mark Lester's brutal revenge-fueled Class of 1984 almost turned down that film because Perry King tried to rescue Tim van Patten, only agreeing to sign the film when this two-second blip of footage was replaced with an alternate take of King punching van Patten's lights out and sending the young man screaming two floors down to his death on the floor of the high school's gym. Though in spirit Death Sentence and Class of 1984 have so much in common what separates them is something so difficult to articulate as to be beyond words; something that can only be captured, however fleetingly, in pictures.

After the battle.
"Lookit you. You look like one of us!"
"Lookit what I made you!"
ka-klik!
"Ready?"



Camera pulls away…
Justice meted out, the vigilante exits to return to what's left of his life.

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