When I was a kid in the 1970s, a well-made little action flick called Death Wish came out, and it changed America forever.
The movie starred Charles Bronson—yes, #3 of The Magnificent Seven—as a mild-mannered, big city architect whose wife and daughter are raped in a home invasion (the wife is killed; the daughter goes mental). Stricken with grief, the guy blunders around for a few months until he finds a way to feel better: he goes on the subway late at night and waits to get mugged, at which point he shoots the creeps.
If this plot sounds vaguely familiar to you, you’re right. It’s been replicated countless times through the succeeding decades, from the original Max Max to Batman to The Outlaw Josey Wales and hundreds of lesser, B-level films. Death Wish created a genre—the American Vigilante Movie—whose basic elements continue to be reshuffled in films to this day.
Here are the essentials:
- A decent, law-abiding man suffers a terrible, Old Testament-style outrage, usually inflicted by members of another race/class/nationality or other tribal group.
- The outrage always involves either rape against the man’s wife/daughter etc., or some similar sexual threat (white slavery, etc.).
- The man first attempts to gain justice using the legal system, which fails him miserably. (It’s run, after all, by namby-pamby liberals who either don’t care or who are ineffectual/gutless).
- The man, seeking vengeance, arms himself to the teeth and goes on a killing spree against the offending tribe.
Death Wish is still the epitome of the genre, and with good reason. It’s a perfect combination of A-list urban drama with C-list exploitation film. Bronson gives a fine performance as a man who seems genuinely tormented by his loss. But it is a performance juxtaposed against lurid scenes of sadistic violence, bordering on the pornographic. Yes, Death Wish is a strange brew.
Readers of this blog will recognize the Vigilante Movie as a subset of a larger genre—the Revenge Fantasy. The main distinctions of the Vigilante film are the meek, Everyman nature of the main character (who latter becomes a killing machine) and the psychosexual nature of the initial offense, which is often bound up with white male fear of miscegenation and cuckoldry. (It makes perfect sense that the term “cuck” has been taken up by the alt-right community as the ultimate epithet.)
I’ve been thinking about this genre a lot lately, especially since Donald Trump’s recent prime-time speech in which he tried to convince the nation of dire “emergency” on the Southwest border. As usual, Trump tends to frame this emergency as largely one of “violation,” including sexual violation (he explicitly mentions “rape” and the vicious “stabbing and beating a 16-year-old girl”).
Of course, I didn’t actually watch Trump’s speech—only an idiot would do so—but I did hear snippets of it, enough to get the gist: America is being invaded by sweaty, horny Mexicans who are going to rape our womenfolk and sell drugs to our kids.
And as I pondered this rather unusual—if not medieval—rhetorical tactic, it occurred to me that Trump, from the first days of his candidacy through his election and now into his second year as President, has defined himself as the Vigilante President.
Think about it. Trump presents himself as a normal, working-class schmo (never mind the fact that he was a millionaire by age 8) who is appalled by the sorry state of white America, which is being overrun by criminals and immigrants (same thing). He is the avenger who shuns the legal bureaucracy (run by weak liberals) to wreak Biblical punishment on the offenders.
It’s a primordial image that strikes at the heart of the white American male psyche (and a lot of white female ones, too). And it’s totally insane.
Not just insane, but self-destructive. Like all pornography, the Vigilante Movie perpetuates a fantasy of power and dominance. How can we be surprised that a man who models himself as the Vigilante-in-Chief would deliver disaster after disaster on the American people.
And he’s not done yet. We’re not sure how this movie is going to end, but I doubt it will be in the usual Vigilante Movie fashion, with the hero striding off into the sunset, stepping over the bodies of the vile criminals whom he has purged from the landscape. Rather, I think it will end more like Taxi Driver—in an orgy of chaos and blood and madness.
Better get the popcorn…