By late summer, when director James Wan's Death Sentence is playing side-by-side with Neil Jordan's The Brave One at many of our nation's multiplexes, moviegoers will be forgiven for thinking that they've traveled through a time warp and landed in the late 1970s, when first-class cinemas and seedy grindhouses alike were flooded with urban crime dramas about ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands. In Death Sentence (which arrives this weekend), Kevin Bacon stars as Nick Hume, a mild-mannered insurance-company risk assessor — all checks and balances — who tries to bring a kind of Old Testament justice to bear on the gangbangers who murdered his golden-boy son. In The Brave One (which opens on September 14), Jodie Foster's Manhattan talk-radio host becomes a pistol-packing avenging angel after a brutal Central Park attack ends with her in a coma and her fiancé in a body bag. Though the two films move along considerably different tracks toward wildly different ends, both give us ordinary men and women driven to violence by a violent society — and that, Wan says, is no coincidence.
"Whether it's a popcorn movie or some really intellectual sociopolitical movie, I think to some degree they're all influenced by the social climate that we're living in," Wan told me recently over lunch in Los Angeles. "A lot of these types of films — the vigilante or revenge drama — were so popular in the '70s because there was a feeling in the culture of loss of control. And I think right now there is this real feeling of loss of control. With all the crap that's going on around the world, you kind of want to do what you can to protect the ones you love."
Indeed, the original vigilante movie trend, which continued through the mid-1980s, was sparked by the enormous popularity of 1974's Death Wish, an adaptation of the best-selling Brian Garfield novel, starring Charles Bronson as a pacifist New York architect who transforms into a fascistic killer following the murder of his wife and the rape of his daughter. Released into a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate nation, the film tapped acutely into audience feelings of powerlessness and paranoia, and it spawned a veritable cottage industry of Canal Street-caliber knock-offs with titles such as The Exterminator, Fighting Back, Vigilante, and Don't Mess With My Sister. (Over the next 20 years, there would also be four official Death Wish sequels.)
Garfield, for his part, was so distressed by the Death Wish movie and its tacit endorsement of the Bronson character's actions that he wrote another novel, Death Sentence, out of frustration. And though Wan is quick to note that his adaptation of Death Sentence (which was scripted by Ian Jeffers and an uncredited Garfield) takes considerable liberty with the novel's plot, it nevertheless stays true to Garfield's essential theme — that with each successive kill, Nick Hume moves one step closer to becoming the very type of amoral criminal he despises. It's a transformation Wan envisions in both psychological and physical terms, right up to a startling scene in which a bloodied and battered Bacon shaves his head bald in the style of the vicious gang leader whose name is at the top of his hit list.
"We knew that making a revenge movie in today's climate would be really sticky," says Wan, who stresses that Death Sentence isn't a vigilante movie in the traditional sense because the main character's actions are directed solely against the individuals who caused his family harm. "We all agreed that violence begets violence and you can't solve issues with more violence. I know that sounds really simplistic, but that's what we wanted to touch on."
With strands of magenta-streaked dark hair arranged atop his head, the 30-year-old Wan looks more like the frontman of some hip Asian punk outfit than a movie director. Yet, after directing three feature films, the Malaysian-born, Australian-bred filmmaker is already something of a household name — provided, that is, your house has a Fangoria subscription. Back in 2003, when Wan was struggling through a series of odd jobs in his adopted home of Melbourne, a script he'd co-written with film-school classmate Leigh Whannell, about two men chained to opposite ends of an industrial bathroom and subjected to the gut-wrenching demands of a genius serial killer, attracted the attention of a Hollywood agent. The agent proposed a meeting, but Wan was flat broke.
"I'd been out of work for five months, and the idea of flying all the way to L.A. to meet with an agent just sounded really stupid, like a potentially very expensive handshake," Wan recalls. But Wan and Whannell decided to take the trip anyway, and by the end of their first week in Los Angeles, they'd signed a deal to make Saw, with Wan directing and Whannell in a leading role. "Leigh and I have always said that we haven't made a lot of smart decisions in our lives, but this was one of the few," Wan jokes.
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Released in the fall of 2004, Saw went on to earn $100 million at the worldwide box office on a budget of $1.2 million, making it one of the most profitable of the new wave of horror films that appeared in the wake of Wes Craven's Scream. It was also, negative reviews notwithstanding, one of the most provocative, with a perversely appealing anti-hero who kills his victims only after failing in his efforts to re-educate them. Not surprisingly, a sequel (the first of three produced but not directed by Wan) was in theaters a year later. In a media culture hungry for buzz terms and trends, Wan was tagged as the latest member of the so-called Splat Pack — an unofficial collective of contemporary horror filmmakers including Rob Zombie and Hostel director Eli Roth. It's a label Wan wears uneasily, even if he finds it preferable to the more derogatory catchphrase frequently applied to the Saw films: torture porn.
"Journalists use that term without quite knowing what it means — I actually had one journalist tell me that," Wan says. "I find it really ironic, because I never set out to make a movie about torturing people. I think that the first Saw was really more of a psychological film about two people stuck in a room, and the traps and games that fans seem to embrace so much now were quite a small portion of the film. I'm a big movie fan, and I want to make movies in every genre. I want to make my romantic comedy one day. A branding like 'splat pack' or 'torture porn' is very limiting for me."
Death Sentence is Wan's second film to hit theaters in 2007, following Dead Silence, a deliberately old-fashioned ghost story that was released with little fanfare by Universal in the spring. ("It was a studio movie, and let's just say that was the reason I wanted to go back to making an indie film," says Wan of the troubled production.) Death Sentence also marks, he says, "a very calculated move" away from the horror genre, of which Wan says he's grown tired. Still, it's not hard to see why Garfield's story and its stark moral landscape appealed to the filmmaker responsible for giving us the era's most philosophical horror-movie bogeyman.
"All my movies are about people with some ideology," he says. "But guess what? It never works out. Here's a story about this guy thinking he can control his situation by going after what he believes in but ultimately paying a dear price for it. He makes the wrong decision. That's another thing my films deal with: choices."