You make war on the wrong dog?
— Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler)
An early, frankly astounding sequence in Death Sentence, which actually features several, is essentially an extended chase. Desperate to wreak vengeance on a killer, a gang of heavily tattooed, large-weapons-wielding thugs hightail it through pedestrians and traffic, garbage-strewn alleys, and up and down the multiple tiers of a parking garage. Their loudly sputtering, obscenity-inflected wrath is set against the inarticulate vulnerability of their prey, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon). His business suit increasingly frayed and bloodied, his options decreasing by the instant, Nick runs headlong into a special kind of chaos. And the camera tracks him — in profile, from behind, and from below — as he makes a series of desperate and oddly fortuitous choices, his skinny legs churning, his face contorted with fear. Nick is no action hero. He’s barely a survivor.
This sequence goes on for long minutes, emphasizing Nick’s nearly existential isolation and his bitter anguish. The film’s starkly saturated color emphasizes his sweaty, angular features, while the audacious stunts and excessively mobile camerawork are galvanizing, despite a fundamental lack of logic (where are the cops in this city?). As Nick staggers, gasping and vacant-eyed, through the parking garage, he throws his body against vehicle after vehicle in order to start their alarms — those same alarms that do nothing because no one is ever around to hear them — creating a cacophony of horns, whistles, and sirens, not deterring his assailants but possibly distracting them, confusing them as to his whereabouts, or maybe just drawing them and you into his own frenzied noise: the racket in his head becomes the soundtrack.
It’s a delirious, strange, and exhilarating sequence, partly because it makes no sense. And in this, it mirrors Nick’s rapid descent (even as it takes him up, to the garage roof) into lunacy. Just a few scenes prior, he was a staid insurance risk assessment manager, a firm believer in order. Advising his budding hockey star son Brendan (Jordan Garrett) as to the potential costs and benefits of going to college in Canada (that is, pursuing a professional hockey career), he’s cast as decent but preoccupied dad. He’s so preoccupied that he misses all the signs the film emphasizes for you when, driving home from a game, they stop at a gas station: trash blows, shadows deepen, and a couple of muscle cars roar into the parking lot. You know: uh oh.
The ensuing tragedy is brutal, leaving Brendan dead by machete, Nick wailing in agony, and the shooter, a kid named Joey Darley (Matt O’Leary), splat on the street after being hit by a conveniently speeding car. A series of prosaic images — the overhead shot of Nick’s sobbing wife Helen (Kelly Preston) in bed, the camera pulling out from sobbing younger son Lucas (Stuart Lafferty) while he holds a photo of his brother, and, of course, the rainy funeral — denotes Nick’s despair. And then it gets worse: the sleazy ADA and stern-faced Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler) inform Nick that the best they can do is a plea deal: three to five years.
Imagining that he’ll create his own order in the universe, Nick decides not to testify against Joey and instead, turn vigilante. It’s an abrupt transition, silly really, but Bacon makes Nick’s torment especially visible, in his alternately taut and crumpling body as well as in corny close-ups on his increasingly ragged, map-of-pain face. When Lucas finds his dad in the garage on the night Joey’s been turned loose, he has reason to worry: Nick’s pulled out a rusty machete and hunting knife, then claims he has to fetch something at the office.
No surprise, that first night’s act, against Joey, only escalates the disorder. The struggle is mighty, the violence ugly and inept, and Nick returns home with suit jacket torn and blood on his hands, literally. While Helen accepts that Nick has just “fallen” in the driveway,” Lucas guesses what’s happened (“How ya doing, kid?” Nick asks him, alarmingly jaunty). The son says nothing, only stands, alone and miserable, in the living room, while dad heads to the shower. Each successive run-in with the gang members — led in their own raucous quest for revenge by Joey’s brother Billy (Garrett Hedlund) — leaves Nick more damaged and gaunt, with increasing numbers of cuts, bangs, and bruises. The revenge he’s getting, mostly by accident, is hardly helping. Rather, it’s undoing the order he believed was his, as he slides ever faster into his own darkness.
Death Sentence is smart enough about its generic limits: the violence is ragingly B, the dialogue goofy, the cops always steps behind. (Wallis is especially annoying: apparently the only detective in town, she’s first on every murder scene, but slow to act on what seems obvious evidence of Nick’s participation.) But this is the point. In the new vigilante movie, it’s not the loner or the outsider who seeks redress by insane means. It’s the family man, the guy who goes to work every day but sees no hope in the system that’s never going to represent his interests. When Nick meets another father, a gun salesman named Bones (John Goodman), he’s appalled by the man’s complete rejection of his own monstrous son. But by this time his own morality is so skewed and incoherent that he only nods, eyes hard and jaw jutting, the low angle making you wonder which dad is the baddest.
For all his effort to achieve a “balance” of costs and benefits, Nick is doomed. Just so, the movie culminates in a sequence that quotes directly from Taxi Driver. From NIck’s badly shaved head (wisps he can’t reach on the back gesture toward Travis’ famous Mohawk), a hand shot off, point-blank gunshots and staggering bodies, and Nick’s profusely bleeding neck, his very life barely contained by the kerchief he holds to it. Bleak and gory, the sequence is an obvious homage, and like the original, its pleasures are complicated, even intellectual. Driven by a visceral athleticism and vibrant color design (set in an abandoned church, complete with very red stained glass windows), Nick’s process is never resolved. Scorsese’s film, surprising and incensed, spoke to its moment, including the fall of Saigon, Civil Rights, and the worldwide depletion of U.S. credibility. This next version, derivative and hysterical, also makes a case concerning its context. As Willis puts it to Nick, “You’re never gonna win this.”