In July 1974, director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson stormed into theaters with an unflinching action masterpiece that would go on to inspire decades of filmmaking even as it infuriated critics. The film, Death Wish, would spawn four sequels, a remake, and countless knock-offs. It would also incite passionate debate on the role of gun control and violence in daily life.
Forty-five years after its initial release, however, the legacy of Death Wish remains misunderstood both by the people who root for the film’s vigilante protagonist and the critics who lampoon its brutal action.
A Quiet Man’s Rage
By this point, the setup to Death Wish is probably familiar. Even if you’ve never seen Charles Bronson vent his rage against a small army of street toughs, you still likely know how the first bit of the story goes. Paul Kersey (Bronson) is an architect living a peaceful, upper-middle-class life in New York City when a savage (and explicitly filmed) attack leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a near-comatose state.
Stripped of everyone he loved, the previously non-violent Kersey finds himself eaten alive by a desire for revenge. Wallowing in grief and guilt, the mild-mannered architect grabs a gun and hits the streets to vent his frustration on any criminal unfortunate enough to get in his way. As news of Kersey’s exploits overtakes New York, the city is consumed in debate. In the end, a detective tracks Kersey down, and, rather than endure the media firestorm that would result in Kersey’s arrest and trial, simply tells the architect to get out of Dodge.
In the final moments of the film, Kersey, arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, spots two troublemakers harassing a bystander. With a dead-eyed grin, Kersey lifts his hand, his forefinger pointing like the barrel of a gun, and winks at the assailants.
It’s Easy to See the Film as Pro-Vigilante
It’s easy to see Death Wish as a movie that not only supports gun violence but actively roots for it. That’s certainly the message a good share of critics took from the film when they first watched it.
On release, Variety said of the film: “Poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement is the vulgar exploitation hook on which Death Wish is awkwardly hung.”
Even as he admitted enjoying the action and direction, Roger Ebert declared Death Wish to be “propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice.”
Admittedly, those critics have a point. The New York City of Death Wish is almost cartoonishly violent, a tactic that heightens the danger of the movie, but simultaneously makes the Big Apple look like a ghoulish wasteland (which it was not, even in the mid-1970’s). Then there’s the fact that, even after indiscriminately murdering a bunch of folks, Kersey faces no legal penalties. Hell, by the time the credits roll, Kersey seems intent on continuing his vigilante pursuits in Chicago. All that adds up to a pro-gun romp aimed at fueling fear and promoting divisiveness.
Death Wish is more than simple surface details, however. For those willing to think about the sum total of the film, Death Wish is a visceral story about the downward cycle of violence.
Crushed and Clinging to Hate
When the film was released, critics got hung up on a handful of plot details: Kersey’s shooting spree sees violent crime cut in half in New York City, he gets off scot-free, and he’s apparently so proud of himself at the end that he determines to keep on murdering.
Consider this, though; Paul Kersey never gets his man. More often than not, modern riffs on Death Wish, validate their heroes’ quest by letting them come face to face — and ultimately triumph over — the people who wronged them. In that way, these movies seem to advocate picking up a gun and shooting the crap out of people as the best way to handle misplaced anger. Those films allow their main character a glimmer of satisfaction that Paul Kersey never gets.
Death Wish puts Kersey on the warpath and then give him no direction. Kersey is so consumed by his anger, so wrapped up in toxic masculinity that he needs to reign down Biblical violence against someone, against anyone. Paul Kersey isn’t a hero. He’s a sad man who should have gone to therapy instead of picking up a gun.
That descent into madness is echoed by the film’s constant references to Westerns as the pinnacle of masculinity. When he’s visiting a job site in Arizona, Kersey is taken to a live-action Western show where macho tough guys solve their problems with guns. The fight scene is filmed objectively, but there’s a glimmer of desire in Bronson’s eyes that betrays his jealousy of those hard men solving problems with their fists. As his rampage gets out of control, Kersey succumbs to his macho fantasy, holding tight to the notion that a real man uses violence to solve his problems.
At the end of the film, when confronting his last hoodlum, Kersey’s mania becomes complete as he growls, “Fill your hand.” It’s the last thing John Wayne says in True Grit before he saves the day. But Kersey doesn’t save the day. He passes out because he’s been shot. It’s not exactly the chivalrous image of a noble Western hero so much as it is the ravings of a deranged madman.
Then there’s the action itself. Kersey’s one-man war on crime is filmed with the same reserve as the attack on his wife and daughter. In that way, Michael Winner places Kersey’s battle on the same level as the initial assault. There are no frills, here, no intricate set pieces or professional fisticuffs. There’s just a man, a gun, and a lot of victims. It’s nauseating. It’s not something to be mimicked.
In that context, the film’s iconic ending isn’t so much a celebration of Kersey’s victory as it is an exercise in delusion and despair. By the time Kersey reaches the end credits, he’s lost everything: his wife is dead, his daughter is in an institution, he’s forbidden to return to New York, and he’s lost his grip on reality. Paul Kersey has nothing left but his crusade. He’s no longer an upstanding man, he’s something ugly, alien, more like the men who attacked his family than the man he was at the start of the movie.
When it comes down to it, Death Wish isn’t an action movie. It’s a monster movie. And Charles Bronson is the frustrated gremlin at the center of the tale.
Choose Your Own Moral
When it was released, Death Wish was immensely popular, especially in New York City. In its first week, the film soundly dethroned The Godfather’s opening record at one city theater even as it drew the ire of scores of moviegoers. That volatile mix of love and hatred ignited a nationwide conversation on gun violence and vigilantism.
One writer for The New York Times called Death Wish, “the most discussed and debated film in these parts since The Exorcist.”
And the reason Death Wish keeps coming back. Even when it’s done very, very wrong (looking at you, Eli Roth), Death Wish sparks conversation. Whether you see the film as an ode to vigilante justice or as a morality tale focused on the destructive power of violence, you come away thinking. In the same way that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street asks the audience to revile a guy who’s charming on a moment-to-moment basis or how Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing demands that its audience see every perspective on a baking Brooklyn street, Death Wish asks viewers to go beyond superficial assessment and truly consider the consequences of vigilante justice and toxic masculinity.
It asks us to take part in the morality of its main character, to vilify or accept his actions, and come away questioning the way we view violence in the real world. And that is a conversation that’s as important today as it was 45 years ago.