Film — January 17, 2019, 2:10 pm

I Did It My Way

A recent cycle of vigilante films might gesture towards Trump-era fears, but their source is much older

A still from Peppermint (2018)

There’s not much worth saying about the Jennifer Garner vigilante vehicle Peppermint, released in September and already essentially forgotten, as a work of film art. Having long left the few multiplex screens that it managed to linger upon at the tail end of a not-quite-break-even theatrical run, it was a movie about as bad as you probably thought it was, a mid-budget shoot-’em-up overseen by Pierre Morel, the director of Taken (2008), of whom the best one can say is that his caméra stylo is slightly more distinguished than that of fellow Luc Besson epigone Olivier Megaton (2012’s Taken 2, 2014’s Taken 3). The movie features Garner as Riley North, a Los Angeles-area mother whose happy, hokey, utterly run-of-the-mill home life is upended when her automobile-mechanic spouse and young daughter (Jeff Hephner and Cailey Fleming) are gunned down in a drive-by shooting perpetrated by cartel hit men responding to intel suggesting that her husband had dared to think about robbing their drug-lord boss (Diego Garcia). Despite her positively ID’ing the killers, they walk after a preliminary trial presided over by a courtroom where the judge, district attorney, and defense lawyer are all clearly in the pocket of the cartel; when the case is thrown out, she rushes the defendants in a frenzy of wounded matriarchal fury.    

Morel embraces his movie’s clichés with open arms, not working around them or trying to ground them in a recognizable social world, but rather amplifying them: at one point, when North flees custody before an officer can prepare her for a rubber room following her courtroom histrionics, a detective muses, “She’ll turn up. One way or another, they always do.” Sure enough, Riley goes on the lam after the unpunished butchery of her family, only to resurface five years later as an avenging angel, trained to lethal efficiency with firearms, edged weapons, and hand-to-hand combat, on a sworn mission to kill every foot soldier, crooked cop, and paid-off judge she encounters on her way to cut the head off the cartel snake.

Morel’s villains are those likely to appeal to a nativist contingent who believe that civilization is threated by foreign-born brown hordes, either Mohammedan, as in Taken (2008), or affiliated with MS-13, Los Zetas, and other gangs connected to the Central American drug trade. (This summer’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado presented a combination of the two, with jihadis slipping into the United States from across the Mexican border to suicide-bomb a supermarket in Kansas City, anticipating presidential rhetoric regarding the infiltration of “Middle Easterners” into the “migrant caravan” heading for the Rio Grande and already occupying ample real estate in the minds of Fox News enthusiasts.) Peppermint screenwriter Chad St. John’s previous credits include 2016’s London Has Fallen, a film condemned for its “ugly brand of reactionary fearmongering” by Variety, among other publications, for moments like that in which star Gerard Butler tells swarthy nemeses to pack up your shit and head back to Fuckheadistan or wherever it is you’re from.” I’m inclined to suspect that St. John—who, at risk of stating the obvious, is white—is more of a facile cynic with an eye to the lowest common denominator than a full-fledged anti-immigrant culture warrior, though his giving Riley the dog-whistle-ish surname “North” does give some credence to the latter reading.

Peppermint’s opportunism is its lone point of distinction, and the fact that it’s inspired by the same fear of sinister forces seeping into the United States from south of the border that inspired much of the rhetoric of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency, from the minting of “Angel Families” to the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, has not escaped notice. The cartel gangbangers are of the facially tattooed variety who are a staple of memes circulated on Facebook by nervous suburban isolatesand a very far cry from the amiable, time-card-punching, workaday cartel soldiers in Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. The film’s tagline reads “The System Failed. She Won’t,” but it might just as well announce, “This American Carnage Stops Right Here and Stops Right Now.” Anticipating its own cycle through the post-internet cultural conversation—where differing political factions claim or reject real or fictional people as embodying or contradicting their worldviews—Peppermint makes a clunky passing reference to vox-pop moralizing: “Social media continues to explode with debate about female vigilante Riley North,” a newscaster is seen to comment. The extralegal avenger is a figure routinely elevated to grassroots celebrity, as Lisbeth Salander is at the outset of Fede Álvarez’s recent The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a belated sequel to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), with Claire Foy taking over the role of, as one character in the film puts it, “the righter of wrongs, the girl who hurts men who hurt women.” Eli Roth’s remake of 1974’s Death Wish, released in spring of this year, more discerningly situated its violence in this cacophonous, plugged-in milieu. When Bruce Willis’s surgeon-cum-vigilante Paul Kersey is caught on camera interrupting a carjacking with pistols blazing, we see his anonymous “Grim Reaper” persona elevated to meme stardom and made the subject of a chorus of voices from local Chicago talk radio expressing condemnation or support for the gunman, including Heather B, Sway Calloway and, most full-throated in his praise, the currently-between-gigs “Mancow” Muller, whose claims to fame include starring in a History Channel reality show titled God, Guns & Automobiles.

A still from Death Wish (2018)

It is worth wondering, after a year that brought us Peppermint, Death Wish, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, The Equalizer 2, and Sicario: Day of the Soldado—a sequel in which Josh Brolin’s CIA operative is cleared to use gloves-off, legally dubious tactics in order to engage the Mexican cartels—if something isn’t going on here: once is chance, twice is coincidence, and thrice is a pattern, as the saying goes. A game beloved of American cultural commentators is finding a corresponding character between a new presidential administration and the tenor of the movies made under the auspices of that administration, as though the Commander-in-Chief were some kind of arts czar who could immediately alter the output of major studios just as quickly as he makes over the Oval Office carpeting to his taste, or lack thereof.

The truth of matters is, naturally, infinitely more complicated, for popular cinema is a cumbersome, sluggardly art, ill-equipped to respond to the news cycle in real time, its subject matter shaped by the wills of individual artists and by moneymen attempting to predict and to steer the preferences of the viewing public. If anything, the results of democratic elections might help to serve as bellwethers for box-office prognosticators, indicators of what narratives happen to be selling this season. Even this presumption, however, must be taken with a grain of salt, and on a case-by-case basis. A cogent argument might be made, for example, that the 1980 election of our first movie-star president, Ronald Reagan, on the back of an extensively articulated conservative doctrine and a pithy optimistic catchphrase, was a landslide sufficient to radically alter the pop culture landscape, and so the New Hollywood movie of the 1970s, which typically involved Gene Hackman and a metaphor for Watergate and a downer non-ending whose opacity owed much to the European modernist tradition, gave way to the Reagan-era blockbuster, which in its most simplified version is remembered as involving a heavily bronzed bodybuilder retrospectively winning Vietnam by strafing hordes of bumbling Third Worlders with an M60. The only problems with this reading are that Reagan’s lopsided 489–49 win in the electoral vote represents an advantage of only about 8.5 million in the popular vote (this in a country which then had a voting-age population of approximately 164 million, only about half of whom showed up at the polls), and that the sensitive, shell-shocked John Rambo who made his first screen appearance in October 1982 was still very much a Seventies-style antihero, while the blockbuster ball had gotten rolling several years before the Gipper won the big game. (The writer and academic David Bordwell has crunched numbers along these lines before in investigating the concept of a popular cinema tied to presidential politics, and it is to him that I owe the model.)

With this in mind, any attempt to define a Trump-era cinema in January 2019, almost two years after his election, is an even more tenuous proposition. Firstly, Donald J. Trump is, notwithstanding the vociferousness of his admirers, still a rather unpopular president, and to directly petition his base is more-than-usually risky business, given the open antipathy that the official organ of the White House, FOX News, has displayed towards Hollywood, perceived as a hub of liberal propaganda. Not long after the future forty-five emerged unscathed from the leak of the Access Hollywood tape—a hot-mic gaffe of the sort that has been undoing egomaniacal villains since preening populist Lonesome Rhodes went down in flames in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957)—the daily-growing list of #MeToo casualties (including many a DNC donor) was greeted with undisguised glee as further evidence of liberal hypocrisy, working under the assumption that all celebrities and those in that orbit are Democrats. Trump, though he has graced many a film with cameos, is no fan of contemporary cinema, as he expressed to attendees at a rally in Manheim, Pennsylvania in early October 2016, in his usual admixture of gloomy prognostication and off-the-cuff cultural commentary:

People are negotiating—and owners of companies are negotiating—to move your companies out to Mexico and other places. You watch. And it’s getting worse. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. And you’re unsuspecting right now. You say to your wife: “Let’s go to a movie after Trump.” But you won’t do that because you’ll be so high and so excited that no movie is going to satisfy you. Okay? No movie. You know why? Honestly? Because they don’t make movies like they used to—is that right?

In point of fact, Trump may be our first president to be representative of a worldview that makes little room for cinema since Woodrow Wilson issued his immortal pull quote back in 1915 for Birth of a Nation, that benchmark of American movies and, with its Ku Klux night-ride-to-the-rescue, the granddaddy of the vigilante picture. Our oldest chief executive at the time of his election, Trump displays an impatience with the feature-length film format that is often incorrectly believed to be the exclusive province of meme-addled Millennials and the still-pupating Gen Z. While the president can be found in various settings chancing muddled synopses of popular classics, the most convincing report on record of his moviegoing habits comes in a much-cited 1997 New Yorker profile in which the future forty-fifth president extols the 1988 film Bloodsport, based on anecdotes from martial artist Frank Dux’s apocryphal life story, and assigns his then-thirteen-year-old son Eric to fast-forward through the movie’s exposition with the stated goal of getting “this two-hour movie down to forty-five minutes.” (The prospect is doubtless ghastly to consider for proponents of director Newt Arnold.)

A hyperactive fidget not built for the ruminant practice of moviegoing, the president is a post-cinematic being, his proper mediums being multitasking-friendly television and Twitter—high-participation cold mediums rather than low-participation hot ones, to use the terminologies of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. Likewise, it is via internet content that one finds the purest audiovisual expressions of the ethos of his hard-line supporters. Alex Jones’s visit to Ted Nugent’s Texas ranch in a fifty-four-minute segment posted on the Infowars website in April of this year, for example, is a finer piece of pure proselytizing than anything in the Dinesh D’Souza film canon. Between rolling through well-rehearsed verbal assaults on “Great Society and New Deal zombies of the liberal Democrat scourge,” the author of “You Talk Sunshine, I Breathe Fire” takes Jones out to the shooting range to illustrate his contention that a perfectly uncontroversial “bird gun with buck shot,” if properly utilized in a shooting spree, could kill more people than the much-villainized semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle, a gun which has featured in a conspicuous majority of mass shootings since James Eagan Holmes opened fire at a midnight screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado in 2012.

Nugent’s point, one much repeated among Second Amendment absolutists, is that there is no legislating human evil, and the only safeguard from lunatics prone to lashing out with whatever deadly weapon is at hand is an armed, trained, and deputized populace—integrated into the segment is footage of a famous testimonial by Suzanna Hupp, a survivor of a 1991 mass shooting at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, that left twenty-three dead, in which Hupp states her confidence that she would have had perpetrator George Hennard dead to rights had she not recently ceased to carry her handgun in her purse, a felony offense in the state of Texas. (Hupp rode her gun-rights advocacy to a ten-year seat in the Texas House of Representatives.) While old vigilantes like Nugent have found a new lease on life in the current moment, it has also helped move a lot of merch for new viral celebrities like Kaitlin Bennett, the (approximately) twenty-two-year-old Kent State alumnus who gained a measure of fame when she posted graduation photos of herself walking the campus while strapped with an AR-10. Since her breakthrough, Bennett has been a busy young woman, issuing arm wrestling challenges to Parkland survivor David Hogg and traveling to troll the liberal bastions of the Eastern seaboard, where over the summer she posted a selfie from the New Jersey shore with the accompanying text, “Thank you New York for being so awful that I can’t even protect myself with my handgun in your crime-ridden city.”

It is easy to understand the conceptual appeal of New York City as bullet-pocked hellscape for Jeff Sessions or for a firearms fetishist like Bennett (who has a statistically higher chance of being a victim of violent crime in her hometown of Zanesville, Ohio than New York City), for a world of constant, imminent threat from armed assailants requires constant, vigilant self-defense and free access to superior firepower. It is also, as a piece from pop-cultural mythology, difficult to have done with—NYC the urban jungle has a dark allure that NYC the corporate-sponsored neoliberal playground does not. In the year of Death Wish’s release there were 1,919 murders reported in New York City; in 2017, with the city posting a small increase in population, this number stood at 290. In online discourse one frequently finds claims that these statistics have been doctored, though I have yet to meet a New Yorker of significant vintage who argues that the city is going downhill because of crime. (The return of the moneyed middle and upper classes to the urban cores of American cities is another issue entirely.) It is for this reason, undoubtedly, that Roth’s Death Wish lays its scene in Chicago, a city beloved of right-wing pundits for its robust violent crime statistics that are seemingly unaffected by stringent statewide gun control. (That a healthy portion of these guns come from nearby Indiana and Wisconsin tends to escape mention.)

A still from The Police Tapes (1976)

Whatever one may think of the vigilantism cycle that arose in American films of the 1970s—and they are too disparate in ethos and execution to be addressed as a piece—it needs be said that they were responding to a real public perception of rampant lawlessness that was in part borne out by reports of violent crime. Watching Alan and Susan Raymond’s groundbreaking documentary The Police Tapes, the material of which was compiled during months of ride-alongs with patrol officers of the South Bronx’s 44th Precinct in 1976, one might be struck by the degree to which the frustrations expressed by these real-life cops towards what they perceive as a broken system that lets perps plea-bargain their way right back onto the street echo those heard from fed-up movie lawmen like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan in Don Siegel’s eponymous 1971 movie or Joe Don Baker’s Sheriff Buford Pusser in Walking Tall (1973).

The Police Tapes was shot in the same year that saw the release of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a seductive, viewer-compromising movie that burrows into the brain of a messianic, racist incel avant la lettre named Travis Bickle, perhaps the most noteworthy of the self-styled avengers who appeared en masse in the decade following Dirty Harry, picking up the slack for failed law enforcement. Where Callahan and Pusser were honest-to-God badge carriers struggling with the strictures of working within the law, Bickle and Death Wish’s Kersey were a different breed of self-appointed, one-man death squad. In John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977), also scripted by Schrader, William Devane played another shell-shocked Vietnam vet out for justice—Flynn would go on to direct the fine Defiance (1980), with Jan-Michael Vincent, while Schrader became a director in his own right, soon sending George C. Scott’s straitlaced Calvinist burgher on an amateur undercover mission into the Los Angeles porn underworld in Hardcore (1979). Where something like the scurrilous Death Wish or John G. Avildsen’s proto-vigilante hard-hat holocaust Joe (1970) fed fantasies of post-White Flight revanchism for blue-collar and middle-class GI Generation males, other vigilante justice movies visualized violent recourse for very different parties. Rape victims play executioner in I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Ms .45 (1981); anti-black race prejudice stops at the end of a gun barrel in The Black Gestapo (1975) and Brotherhood of Death (1976); the ruling class get their due death sentence in Fighting Mad (1976) and Cutter’s Way (1981)—even the elderly, pushed to the edge by urban renewal, got a chance to strike back in Larry Yust’s Homebodies (1974). Schrader, before he was a filmmaker a perspicacious critic who specialized in genre, wrote this on the subject of the Japanese yakuza movie in 1974: “When a new genre comes into being, one immediately suspects that its causes run far deeper than the imagination of a few astute artists and businessmen. The whole social fabric of a culture has been torn, and a new metaphor has arisen to help mend it.” Something was in the air, and judging from the movies of the period, it had a putrescent odor.

These vigilante heroes and antiheroes didn’t spring full-born from the broken, glass-and-syringe-strewn vacant lots of Seventies American urban decay—in the canon of folklore and pop-lore, one need look no further than precedents like Robin Hood, Zorro, and that American genre most explicitly concerned with the uneasy relationship between personal codes and the written law, the Western, which by the 1960s had developed into cynical, violent permutations both at home and in the variants coming from Italy, where Eastwood broke into movies. Not that either spaghetti or so-called “revisionist” Westerns blazed this particular trail first—Schrader has made no secret of the influence that John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers bore on both Taxi Driver and Hardcore. The concept of a justice above and beyond what the law can do or is prepared to do is hardwired into the national mythology, and might be descried in some seemingly unlikely places, like screed that fills the canvas of David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Hujar Dead)” (1988-89), a logorrhea of outrage vented towards a political establishment indifferent to the mounting toll of AIDS-related deaths, which builds to a boiling point of barely veiled threat from the statement that “America seems to understand and accept murder as a self-defense against those who would murder other people…”

The vigilante film, and the underlying ethos that it addresses, as expressed by Wojnarowicz, didn’t come from nowhere, and it hasn’t gone anywhere—for these movies to have a “comeback,” they would have to have gone away in the first place. You might even argue that the quintessential American film genre of the twenty-first century, the superhero movie, of which The Dark Knight Rises is one of the more esteemed examples, is at heart concerned with vigilantism, but the superhero film is a less a genre than a supergenre, a mash-up of everything at once and nothing in particular—as such, it combines the appearance of precocious sophistication with the impossibility of maturation. It’s too soon to say if some kind of mainstream revival of the vigilante film is underway, but any idea that whatever small spike in prominence such narratives are presently enjoying owes something to the ushering in of a Trump-era cinema is dubious. Two of the vigilantism-themed films of the long, hot, Trumpian summer are in fact sequels to films released in the balmier calm of the Obama years: The Equalizer 2 and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The latter presents a bleak world of all-against-all warfare where rules of engagement have largely been dispensed with: “You’re American, you have too many rules,” a captured Somali pirate cries, assuming that Brolin’s agent is bluffing with the threat of a retaliatory drone strike against his family, only to shortly be proven wrong in a blast of shock and awe. The film is a marked improvement on the 2015 original, thanks largely to the handling of director Stefano Sollima, who seems to have inherited something of the gift for grit and scorched-earth nihilism that marked the films of his father, Sergio, a director of some of the more pungent entries in both the spaghetti-Western cycle and the later Italian poliziotteschi (approximately, “police-related”) films, which gave a crime-wracked Italy its own Dirty Harry–style enforcers.

Another Seventies throwback, the Death Wish remake, which simultaneously celebrates and satirizes gun culture, is a property that has been in development since 2006, and any resemblance it holds to the zeitgeist is purely coincidental, considering director Roth’s preference for reactionary cutting against the grain: His best movie, 2013’s The Green Inferno, which draws heavily on perhaps the only Italian film genre more disreputable than the poliziotteschi, the cannibal movie, as innovated by Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, gleefully sends a self-important pack of do-gooder Obama-era white knights off to slaughter in South America. Of last year’s vigilante movies, Peppermint—announced in spring of 2017—is the only one that might possibly have been devised with the Trump phenomenon fully in mind, though whether this was a matter of quick-buck exploitation or passionate conviction is purely a matter of speculation. The most potentially polarizing of these films, Peppermint is also the stupidest, unable to even tap the intrinsic comedy of its soccer-mom-cum-killing-machine premise, the only hope of redeeming a preposterous Jennifer Garner, whose performance varies only slightly from those in her Capital One credit card commercials. It’s still smart enough to err just on the correct side of out-and-out racism, as most any multiplex movie must—so we get a smattering of good Latinos to deflect accusations of out-and-out racism, just as Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993), in which Michael Douglas cleans the Augean stables of Los Angeles’s mean streets, includes a neo-Nazi among its list of villains by way of proving to the squeamish that his judge, jury, and executioner justice was at least colorblind.

As in the case of the poliziotteschi, the appearance of films distilling an exasperation at the inability of the system to cope with social breakdown knows no national bounds, this sense of gloomy foreboding traveling as effortlessly as does the international flow of capital and talent which have rendered “Hollywood” a phenomenon without an identifiable geographic center. Is the partly Chinese-financed Peppermint an American movie? What about the Scott Rudin–ramrodded Europudding of The Girl in the Spider’s Web? Around the globe, reports are not good. From Germany there is director Fatih Akin’s art-house schlock In the Fade (2017), with Diane Kruger as the grieved survivor of a bombing by domestic neo-Nazi terrorists that killed her Kurdish-German husband and young son. Akin hews to the basic tenets of psychological realism, with one hand keeping his movie at a tasteful distance from the vigilante revenge genre that he teasingly gestures towards with the other, though his movie does include a fairly close variation of Garner’s courtroom breakdown scene in Peppermint; his heavies are likely to appeal to a liberal-left audience for whom the defining issue of the day is native-born right-wing terror and mass shootings by caulky Redditors pumping out conspiracy theories as fast as their spatulate fingers can type. One of the most touted releases of the year, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, gives us a South Korea whose citizens regard one another with enmity across a vast wealth gap, to be bridged only by recourse to violence.

In the multiplex arena, however, we are as of yet far from a popular phenomenon along the lines of Dirty Harry or Taxi Driver. Of the 2018 films made principally with American money named above, there are two respectable box-office performers (Equalizer 2 and Day of the Soldado), three stragglers (Death Wish, Peppermint, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web), and nary a full-fledged critical cause célèbre in the bunch. The exception here is one yet-to-be-mentioned title which forms a direct, unbroken connection between the Seventies cycle and the present day: First Reformed, a reintroduction to a marginally wider audience for Schrader, who has spent most of the last two decades as an increasingly obscure cult figure. A small movie, working a small art-house circuit, First Reformed can hardly be said to have set the world on fire, but it nevertheless offered those who saw it a rather consuming vision of, yes, a world on fire.

The film’s narrative, concerning the Reverend (Ethan Hawke) of a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York who is driven to the precipice of violent action by the oppressive knowledge of a now-inevitable ecological apocalypse, is a far cry from the prurient pulp of Peppermint, the art-house melodrama of In the Fade, the slippery ambivalence of Burning, or the against-all bleakness of Day of the Soldado, and the treatment of the material is in each case entirely individual, but these films do nevertheless have something in common. They each create and draw upon a sense of cataclysm; the source of the cataclysm may vary, as do the cultural assumptions behind it, but these films share the certainty that no help is coming from higher up, as well as the gnawing imperative that something, anything, must be done in the meantime. Across borders and divides of high and low culture, we find a cinema of crisis addressing a culture of crisis—a sense of impending doom far larger than any election cycle. Here course correction seems almost an afterthought, and the pressing question becomes: How many of the other guys can you take out with you? Where will you be standing when you blow the vest?

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