In 2018, it’s tempting to interpret any and all pop culture through the framework of Donald Trump.
With a reality-TV president, it’s hard not to consume television—not to mention film, music, literature, and art—through Trump-colored glasses. Commentaries on “Trumpian” TV shows and pop singles can range from fascinating, necessary critiques to lazy clickbait. While we’re all guilty of working too hard for a Trump-era entertainment angle, there are some cultural artifacts that are so blatantly political, so aggressively of the current climate, that pointing this out feels almost too obvious. What’s the point of a close reading when something is labeled in bright red font, about as unsubtle as the president’s combover?
For a recent example of this phenomenon, look no further than Death Wish, the upcoming remake of the 1974 vigilante action flick.
Starring Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey, the film replicates the original plot, as Kersey begins hunting the robbers who murdered his wife and attacked his daughter. While the first Death Wish existed within its own political context, the new film premieres at a time when an angry white man turning to his arsenal has very specific connotations. The entire premise of the movie—a society gone wrong, and a lone, armed avenger fighting for extralegal justice—feels like a Trumpian fantasy, and a bit of a nightmare for anyone who’s rightfully preoccupied with rampant gun violence in the immediate aftermath of the horrific Parkland school shooting that left 17 people dead.
To watch the latest trailer for the new and seemingly unimproved Death Wish is to enter an upside-down world in which an angry white man going on a murder spree is a redemptive character arc, as opposed to the fruition of our worst fears. Against a suburban American backdrop, we’re informed that: “The US is home to 125 million families, 1 in 4 will become victims of a crime, what if your family was next?” Like a Donald Trump speech on immigration, the unspoken threat against normal (white) American (white) families is articulated as practically inevitable. It’s less of a question and more of a statement: Bad people are here and bad things are coming. Will you just sit back and let this happen to you? Where is your weapon?
After the violent robbery flashes by, we watch as Dr. Kersey’s grief over his dead wife and injured daughter metastasizes. With a growing awareness that the police are unwilling to or incapable of punishing the bad guys, Kersey takes matters into his own hands in a manhunt that pushes him out of the suburbs and into Chicago’s inner city, itself a fertile ground for conservative fantasies. A Flavorwire article picked up on this highly deliberate adjustment from the ’74 film, noting, “They’ve also changed the location, from the now Disney-fied NYC to the Trump Right’s favorite code-word for black urban mayhem, Chicago, a move that’s less a dog whistle than an air horn.”
The Death Wish trailer seems to be previewing a film with an identity crisis, unable to commit to the racist and xenophobic sentiments that its “middle class white vigilante in the inner-city” plot is clearly playing off of. It’s as if someone saw the film and was offended by its politics but didn’t have the budget or the influence to deconstruct it at a genetic level, and settled for exclusively casting white actors as villains and filming a few scenes where Bruce Willis positively interacts with people of color. In this way, the trailer stops just short of effectively selling a Trumpian fantasy, and instead exists in a confusing space that’s just plain not the world we live in.
Potent images and sound bites are decontextualized and reprocessed. The powerful Black Lives Matter symbol of the hoodie is inexplicably repurposed as Kersey’s crime-fighting uniform. In a nod toward modernity, clips of the fallen doc exacting his revenge are circulated on social media; suddenly, the white vigilante is an object of interest and even awe. This is a huge inversion of a reality in which, as the Flavorwire piece pointed out, men like George Zimmerman seek to exact civilian “justice” and painful images of violence against black and brown Americans are passed around communities and dominate newsfeeds. At one point, Kersey is told by a police officer to have faith, and points out that faith didn’t work out so well for the countless victims that the officers failed to protect or avenge. It’s a strange cutting-and-pasting of current critiques of “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric—strange because Kersey’s “solution” is to murder a bunch of people with a gun.
While most gun reform activists and sensible civilians would like a world with less carnage, Death Wish provides an alternate fantasy more in keeping with the NRA-approved myth of the “good guy with a gun.” The film’s trailer doesn’t seem all too concerned with systems of race or inequality, or even larger questions surrounding law enforcement, violent crime, or gun control; what it’s really about is living vicariously through a heroic everyman who gets to shoot a lot of stuff. The Chicago Reader went in-depth on this irrational synopsis, explaining, “The notion of a Chicago gang targeting a suburban McMansion seems absurd. But the plot point serves what’s apparently little more than vigilante porn, red meat for suburban dads in MAGA hats who fantasize about being the NRA’s mythical ‘good guy with a gun,’ though they’re almost never in true danger themselves.”
Last year, the AV Club hypothesized that the release date for the film, which was originally November 2017, had been pushed back in response to the Las Vegas mass shooting. They wrote that, in light of the deadly shooting, the Death Wish remake seemed “even more tone deaf,” positing that, “The Death Wish reboot has been a questionable idea since it was first announced two years ago—the first film of the original franchise might have had some critique of vigilantism nestled within all of the Charles Bronson shootings, but any ostensible message became more obscured with each sequel. At a time when the stand your ground law is regularly a part of the national conversation, a movie about a man looking for revenge and actively mowing down any ‘urban’ characters he comes across isn’t going to (and shouldn’t) sit well.”
If all that weren’t enough, at a Nashville rally in October 2015, then-candidate Trump repeatedly invoked the original Death Wish film to promote the proliferation of guns.
The rally speech occurred in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that took the lives of nine people, and Trump argued that if the teachers were armed, the school would have been “a hell of a lot better off,” echoing his post-Parkland rhetoric. Then, he bragged about having “a license to carry in New York” and how, because of it, he could easily handle a potential robber.
“What was the famous movie? Remember? Where he went around and he sort of, after he wife was hurt so badly and killed…Charles Bronson, right? The late, great Charles Bronson? Name of the movie? Come on! Death Wish!” Trump exclaimed to the hollering crowd of Tennesseans.
“One of the great movies. Today, you couldn’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine, with Trump, somebody says, ‘Oh, all these big monsters aren’t around, he’s easy pickings,’ and then shoommm,” Trump said, mimicking the sound of pulling a gun on a robber.
Apparently you can make the movie today, but if you’re thinking that this still isn’t the right time for vigilante porn, you’re right. The horrible, chilling truth is that, as insensitive as it may seem to release this film at this moment, there never will be a “good time” for Death Wish—not just because the politics of the movie are problematic at best but because, if we keep going the way we’re going, there will just be another tragedy around the time of the next release date. Unlike a white gang pillaging your city’s nicest suburb, mass shootings are currently inevitable—and it’s going to take a lot more than a pissed-off dad packing heat to make that right.