Death Sentence

Starring Kevin Bacon, Aisha Tyler, and Kelly Preston. Rated 18A.

One of the grimmest movies that I'll be sure to see again, Death Sentence is a relentlessly overstimulating B-movie experience. Adapted from the novel by Brian Garfield, whose Death Wish is the daddy of the genre, the movie tells the story of a complacent suburban family and how their random encounter with a street gang inspires the dad to discover his inner Terminator.

Ian Jeffers's script skillfully lays out the happiness of the bourgeois Hume family before their subsequent helplessness at the hands of feral criminals. The policemen are smart and compassionate, and the prosecutor is experienced and reasonable, but they are all useless. Nick and Helen Hume (Kevin Bacon and Kelly Preston) spiral into despair and hopelessness, until someone is about to snap.

Director James Wan (Saw) maintains a steady pace, eschewing showy editing for realistic depression and ethical ambiguity. Except for the overt foreshadowing in early dialogue, and the Tarantino-isms of John Goodman's cameo as a gun merchant, Wan's choices–the sere bleached look of the movie, its fatalistic tone, and the simple effective action–are spot-on.

The movie doesn't bother to provide sociological excuses for the bad guys, who are portrayed as generic losers of assorted ethnicities. Their function is purely to serve the movie's agenda, which is not, as you might think, about the vicious circle of revenge and counter-revenge.

Some reviewers are calling Death Sentence morally reprehensible for being sympathetic to the vigilante, but the movie could be perceived as against revenge, since the outcomes are horrific for heroes and villains alike.

Death Sentence has much less to say about the rightness of killing than about the genetic determinism behind it. Whereas the gangsters kill as part of their initiation into the world of men, Death Sentence points out that a perfectly normal man (Nick Hume=Nice Human) could already be a highly accomplished killer in waiting. His activities are not wanton or gratuitous; a risk analyst by trade, Hume is simply employing the principle of tit-for-tat, but this time using guns.

The resulting slaughter should make me feel bad, but the idea that middle-class men are not completely meek prey is rather reassuring. Accordingly, Death Sentence is a work of curious optimism.