Death Sentence

| September 2, 2007

Death Sentence stars Kevin Bacon as a father who seeks revenge for the murder of his son. Opening the film with typical images of an American family celebrating key moments of American cultural life–Christmas, New Year’s, winning the big game–director James Wan invites audiences to identify with the Hume family. Composed of a hard-working father, a stay-at-home mother, two children, and a beautiful home in the suburbs, the Hume family lives the American dream in all its patriarchal idealism until the threat of the city and all that can be associated with it–drugs, drunkenness, random violence, and, quite simply, chaos–disrupts their peaceful lives.
Most parents cannot imagine anything more terrifying than the death of a child, and Wan plays up this fear in dramatic and grotesque fashion. After a brilliant hockey victory, teenager Brendan Hume (Stuart Lafferty) is murdered in a gas station as his father pumps gas outside. A victim of gang violence, Brendan’s throat is slit by a large machete as the youngest member of a gang kills him for an initiation ritual. When Nick pulls his son into his arms, Brendan is still alive, coughing blood as his head tries to reconnect itself to the neck from which is has been partially severed. Wan’s portrait of death is a gory mess, but perhaps even more disturbing is the audience’s knowledge that Brendan doesn’t simply die–he suffers.
Why so much gore? Does Wan mean to explore gang violence in all its brutality? Does the extended horror experienced by Nick Hume somehow justify his subsequent actions? Or does the violence emanate from Wan’s own directorial interest in blood and guts? This is the director of Saw, after all.
More gore follows, of course, including the slamming of a head in a car door, the severing of a leg, and many, many victims of gun violence. After Nick Hume murders the murderer of his son, he seriously pisses off the leader of the gang/brother of the murderer, Billy Darley (a tattooed and pumped-up Garrett Hedlund). Darley determines to avenge the death of his brother in retribution for the vengeance exacted by Nick for the death of his son. Did you get all that?
Let’s give Wan the benefit of the doubt for a moment by exploring the possible thematic or social implications of this film. Wan suggests quite a few parallels throughout the movie. Brendan is compared to his murderer, Joe Darley (Matt O’Leary), in that both are boys struggling to become men through extraordinary achievement (Brendan on the ice and Darley with a knife). Nick meets the father of both Darley boys (overplayed by John Goodman) in a less than subtle comparison of their parenting techniques. More explicitly, Billy Darley comments to Nick later in the film, “You look like me. Look at what I have made you become.” Parallel structure, mirroring, one character acting as the foil of another–whatever you want to call it, Wan seems to suggest that the line between suburban dad and urban punk is not difficult to cross.
But to what end? Rather than condemn violence, Wan glories in it. A la Rambo, we get an elaborate scene in which Nick dresses the part of a killer, complete with shaved head and leather jacket. There’s an orgiastic celebration of guns as well, reminiscent of The Matrix, during which Hume buys and loads gun after gun. The system (represented by a heartless prosecuting attorney and ineffective police) fails Nick repeatedly. Other than one line in which Detective Wallis (the radiant Aisha Tyler here made remarkably plain, even schoolmarm-ish) suggests that there is no moral high ground in war but only death, Wan takes little time to allow his hero to contemplate the moral implications of his actions. Even Nick’s wife (Kelly Preston), who is initially horrified by Nick’s actions, quickly moves past her upset to assure Nick that he is a “good father.” Nick never questions whether his first act of murder was wrong.
With Kevin Bacon playing Nick Hume, Wan exploits the actor’s everyman qualities. At times, he highlights how inexperienced a killer Nick is, as when Nick reads a gun manual to learn how to load his new pistols. Wan never allows the audience to forget that Nick represents them–he exact suburban vengeance upon the imposing threat of random urban violence for every suburbanite in the theatre. Going to preposterous lengths to free himself from this threat, Nick almost becomes a superhero in his ability to dodge bullets and hit his target. He is at once representative of the audience’s normal life and also the audience’s fantasies of greatness.
Unfortunately, all of this excess provides little satisfaction, for Nick Hume or the audience. The absurdity of the events depicted lack believability. The images lack subtlety. And at times, the movie is downright funny just when it wants to be most serious. Case in point, when Hume decides to complete his mission, he gives the camera a murderous death glance. Not really the fault of Mr. Bacon, whose nice-guy persona should heighten the impact of this moment, but the scene reminds audiences of everything this film lacks–weight, minimalism, and integrity.

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