Eli Roth is the textbook definition of ‘Speaks a lot, says very little’. I say this because he is a spectacle guy. He’s a guy who really wants to get his audience to react viscerally to the shit he puts up. This really defines the earlier stage of his career, and why films like Cabin Fever and the Hostel movies are more fondly remembered. The thing is, though, that that must get tiring and pretty limiting as a creator, hence why his later movies seem to be trying to be a bit more…is substantive the right word? Let’s go with that.
His last three movies are either remakes or inspired by exploitation flicks with a lot more on their mind than just general shock schlock gore. Knock Knock was a remake of 1977’s Death Game. I have not seen the original, but Roth’s movie was dumb, cheesy crap. The Green Inferno was…inspired by cannibal exploitation flicks like Cannibal Holocaust. Eli Roth, however, went further by saying that this was a critique of ‘social justice warriors’ who complain all the time on Twitter and don’t understand the causes they proport to fight for. Despite this making Roth sound like the worst fucking arsehole you can find on social media, he kind of missed the mark because the plot involves these people actually getting active and trying to do something, whilst a little naïve, overall helpful and considerate. Even if they are annoying idiots, it’s hard for me to take this as a good cry to get active and informed when the heroes are trying to stop an indigenous tribe from being bulldozed over.
And this creeps into his latest movie, a remake of Death Wish. After its initial trailer popped up, people accused it of being racist or alt-right gun propaganda due to the celebrated image of a white man shooting up people in Chicago. This view, while kind of hyperbolic, is not entirely unfounded. The original 1974 film came at a time where crime rates and mass poverty were exceedingly high, and the concept the movie put forward of taking care of high crime via vigilante justice was not exactly amazingly well received by everybody. Though, let’s not kid ourselves, it was accepted by a lot of people. The film was incredibly popular. But it was its rather shocking glorification of vigilante justice that gave it its name, even to the point where the author of the novel it was based on wrote a sequel a year after in condemnation of what the film did to his story. Because the book was anti-vigilante justice. I’m not here to say one way or another what the 1974 film did was good or bad, I’m just saying it had something to say, it said it, and people either attached themselves to it or rebuked it.
Now, let me just say this right off out the bat: the new movie ain’t some alt-right fantasy, and the claims that it is go way too far in their reading. They make absolutely sure to avoid the race angle by having a lot of the villains be white, especially two of the three guys that invade Paul Kersey’s house. They have radio presenters (played by real life Chicago newscasters) talk about the issues and take various sides (and this wasn’t some last-minute decision-you see/hear them in the first trailer). He saves victims of all races and some take his side. It’s got a lot of…gun porn-y elements, for lack of better phrasing, but it’s also sure to make fun of the absolutely plastic ridiculousness of NRA-style gun obsessions and the stupid way they are marketed. To be honest, though, that’s kind of the issue.
Don’t get me wrong-I’m not saying this movie should have appeased gun nuts and/or fascists. My problem isn’t that Death Wish isn’t catering to weird rightist beliefs. My problem is that it’s not really saying anything of interest either way. It’s derisive and critical enough of gun culture and vigilantism, but it’s also ultra-gun toting and depicts the criminal gangs as moronic and cowardly. The Wire this ain’t.
Whether you like the original or not, it had a point it wanted to make. That’s not really something I can say about the remake. It’s just kind of toothless. It never sticks to wanting to say anything, outside of ‘the police don’t seem to do their jobs, is it so wrong to want to take matters into their own hands?’ and ‘also maybe taking out vigilante justice may not be the best foot forward’. I think the climate is right for a Death Wish remake to take on the complicated and divisive social issues that plague America and the world. Especially with the very public shootings stories you hear nearly daily from the States. But this isn’t that movie. And that’s a shame.
Cinema, like all art forms, is about communication. It’s about finding having the confidence to communicate a message, regardless of how people will react to it. All great cinema dared to do that; Citizen Kane, M, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Life of Brian! It’s this willingness to pander to audiences and tiptoe around their sensibilities in order to sell tickets is what’s killing our cinematic voices. That the real issue here, not whether or not this piece of media is talking to gun nuts or fascists.
I don’t know Eli Roth. To be honest, I really don’t know a lot about him. Maybe this movie was exactly to his vision. Maybe the famous name attached to it made this a studio hacking nightmare, it’s hard to say. But what I can say about 2018’s Death Wish, a film which he shoulders, fairly or not, is that it’s not one reaching anywhere special. It’s cowardice. And it’s something we shouldn’t be encouraging as audience members.