Death Sentence

Certificate: 18
Running time: 105 mins
Director: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, John Goodman, Aisha Taylor
Genre: Action, Thriller
Country: USA

When Nick Hume (Bacon) witnesses the death of his son in a gas station robbery gone wrong his life is shattered.  The only thing more traumatic that the act is witnessing his son’s killer being sentenced to three years.  Stunned, hurt and angry Hume (a previously quiet Executive) decides that enough is enough and that if the law will not dispense the justice that’s required then he will.

The vigilante/vengeance film is a real double edged sword as they are by definition one of the most enjoyable and thrilling sub genres out there but at the same time suffer from a lot of genre expectations and adherence to a narrative structure that ultimately lets down the audience who have seen it all before.  With the fact that the novel was penned by Brian Garland (writer of Death Wish) there was always the compounded risk that this, more than any other vigilante film, will be compared to the Charles Bronson classic.

James Wan’s body of work is one filled with hits and spills and though credit must be given to him for writing and directing Saw, which was without doubt the first genuinely challenging horror film to come out of Hollywood in years he is dually responsible in no small way for it’s five sequels.  There’s little argument however that when it comes to being almost confrontational with violence he is remarkably good at presenting the detail without feeling like it has ventured into the realm of torture porn.  What he delivers, as director, in Death Sentence is a wonderfully restraint and unpolished product that doesn’t feel like Hollywood.  The use of the camera is excellent, the way in which it stalks some of the performers, always peaking through or around objects and the use of chiaroscuro lighting creates a claustrophobia that has become his trademark.  Yet there’s something raw, it has imperfections and that’s part of it’s beauty.  The perfect example is when Hume shaves his head after getting out of hospital only to have missed a couple of strands of hair which isn’t much but gives the film a little something extra, a little blemish to ground it in a more realistic world and in turn make the violence hit home that little bit harder.  The violent sequences are genuinely refreshing as they don’t feel choreographed, animalistic certainly, raw definitely but not staged which is a real skill.  Wan clearly has an understanding of ‘the real’ and has stitched it into aspects of the film wonderfully.

Kevin Bacon (as Nick Hume) plays it so smart.  Where other actors have beefed up or trimmed down for roles of this nature, knowing the expected physicality of the role and wanting to look good in it Bacon has understood the character.  This is not a chiselled and tanned man, he’s white collar and grieving and if anything the skinny and unprofessional edginess to his character makes him even more intimidating in the role.  He’s not coming after you because he knows he can beat you, he’s coming after you because of instinct and rage and he is much more dangerous than you can imagine.  Bacon is one of those actors (like Kiefer Sutherland) who knows the difference between the “good” character and the “bad” character isn’t how you play it but is which side of the fence you’re on.  The character believes he’s in the right and whether you disagree will affect how you see them.  It’s a wonderful way to approach a character as it places the moral decisions with regards to their actions in the mind of the audience to be answered or not but allows for discussion.  This is, ultimately, the biggest strength of the vigilante sub genre as it always poses the unspoken question “what would you do?”.  The supporting cast all chip in with solid performance, Kelly Preston (who always has a question mark over her performances) is strong as Nick’s wife, John Goodman (as Bones) gives his stock white Supremist performance which is chilling regardless of how many times you have seen it and Aisha Taylor (as the chasing Detective) serves her purpose.

There are three problems with the film.  With the exception of Hume there’s no character in the film that is there for anything other than exposition or execution and because of this, even though the protagonist is a slight man, you never really doubt his ability to do away with everyone that impedes his advancement towards the end game.  The second, and this one is a lot bigger, is the fact that for the most part, we’ve seen it all before.  The cop who’s piecing it together but is just behind the curve, the wronged father, the nasty two dimensional baddies you love to hate.  Granted the methods in which most of them are despatched are extremely entertaining and lovers of the vigilante movie will cheer with each drop of blood spilt but it leaves you a little unsure as to why you didn’t love it.  The third problem, and this might say more about me than anything else, is one of humour.  In the great vigilante movies there is always humour, whether it’s a slight tip of the hat from the film makers or a more blatant belly roars, they are about fun.  The fun of living out your greatest desires outside of the law of repercussions that we all have.  David Lynch told me a story of being cut off while driving down Mulholland Drive and how he dreamt for a split second of catching up with the car, forcing them off the road and doing untold evils to them.  He didn’t of course but he did channel it into Lost Highway and the film was all the better for it.  Vigilante’s are heroes for when the law breaks down and as such we want them to be humourous and  enjoy their work.  Death Sentence lacks any real pleasure in the vengeance it delivers and falls short of delivering the basic animalistic pleasure required in these films.


Larry Taylor said...

Seen it all before sounds about right. I couldn't bring myself to watch it because I felt like I could re-write the screenplay beforehand.

John Baxter said...

That's about it. Some interesting facets within the film and it's well made et al but that's a sub genre that's so heavily covered with titles that are a lot better...and even a lot worse.

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