You know what they say: A liberal is a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet. By “they” I mostly mean movies like Death Wish (1974), Hobbesian revenge fantasies offering guilt-free bloodletting. In a sense, though, they’re right. After a humiliating electoral defeat last November, post-Kennedy liberalism was denuded of its righteous pretensions and revealed for the farce that it is, a band of market-obsessed pity-mongers for whom social justice is an economic transaction and something worth politely discussing but not fighting for. Death Wish is the caricature the ideology deserves in its twilight years. It’s The Room for the Sanders set.
Unknowingly, Michael Winner’s Death Wish gets the contemporary liberal moral calculus correct in spirit, hyperbolic in practice. Charles Bronson stars as a prosperous Manhattan architect and pacifist whose wife is murdered and daughter violated during a home invasion by Jeff Goldblum and a team of lackeys. After witnessing a live reenactment of a wild west shootout during a work trip to Arizona, he commits to bringing frontier justice down upon the petty thieves of New York. Bronson’s vengeance cleanses him of centrist delusions as he is reborn; no longer pitying the poor, he sets about sacrificing them in order to quench his rage and restore the city to its upstanding citizens. The poor are entitled to sympathy only so long as they tuck themselves out of sight. The film’s central idea is this: Haven’t all of us respectable folks nourished the desire to take to the subway with an antique revolver and shoot to death anyone who frightens us? No? Well...
The film is hilariously repugnant, with shocks of bright, candy-red blood and nuggets like “I kill rich cunts.” Bronson’s awkward performance details something close to real anguish as he cries on his knees or twirls a sock full of quarters around his apartment, but Winner isn’t curious about the character. Instead he lets the film’s premise do the talking. We are to identify with Bronson’s mass murder spree, not examine his moral architecture. His first POV is right out of a first-person shooter while he take a gun in his hand for the first time in decades. Turns out his aim is perfect. He’s meant to be our man.