Reel Men: Paul Kersey Doles Out a 'Death Wish'

Reel Men: Paul Kersey Doles Out a 'Death Wish'

Aug 16, 2011

We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse.  These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them. Ultimately we hope to have the ultimate guide to what the movies have taught us about being real men ourselves.


The Film: Death Wish (1974)

Who’s The Man: Paul Kersey

Paul Kersey was an architect living in New York City. He was the epitome of an honest, everyday Joe. One day, his wife and daughter are attacked by a gang of thugs in a senseless act of violence that left his wife dead and his daughter so traumatized that she could no longer speak. His world shattered, Kersey puts his trust in the police in the hopes of achieving some measure of justice for his wife and child; a move that proves to be an aggravating effort in futility. Kersey therefore opts to take it upon himself to ensure that this horrible tragedy does not befall anyone else. He does so by enforcing his own brand of law and order with the aid of a loaded gun, Kersey begins to relieve muggers, rapists, and other criminals of their miserable lives one by one.  

What Makes Him a Reel Man?

There is a danger inherent in celebrating the exploits of a man like Paul Kersey, or any vigilante for that matter. When broaching the subject of vigilante justice, we are in danger of tumbling into a full-blown ethical quandary. One the one hand, the idea of circumventing our system of law in favor of immediate judicial gratification is a slippery slope that has the potential to lead us into total anarchy. On the other hand, the prospect of scumbags getting what they deserve without being able to manipulate the courts and continue hurting the innocent is an oddly comfortable thought. So rather than accept Kersey into the ranks of the Reel Men based his methods, I prefer to celebrate the socially proactive lesson we can all take away from his mission.

Kersey is a man who exemplifies the idea of taking pride in one’s community. As John Donne once said, “no man is an island.” Paul Kersey understands that the relationship between a man and his neighborhood, his city, more to the primitive point his domain, is not a passive one. If the condition of living within that domain begins to wane, every man within its borders is charged with doing everything he can to rectify that situation. Though Kersey’s methods are a touch more extreme than, say, sending a letter to your local congressmen regarding the state of the local park, Kersey is nevertheless committed to not standing idly by and allowing the continued decline of his community.

So no, we are not seriously advocating the institution of vigilante justice in crime-ridden areas, but we can appreciate Kersey for what motivates him without condoning his bloody tactics. Kersey could have easily counted his family as yet another of the innumerable statistics that are inevitable in major metropolitan cities. He could have resigned himself that, since he would never be able to punish those directly responsible for his wife’s death, his obligation to bettering his community was null. But he saw the calamity that befell his family as a microcosm of a much larger problem and he had the gumption to do something about it. This rejection of isolationism is truly commendable.

The Man’s World

Death Wish is an exemplar of both exploitation cinema and revenge films. This status is well earned through the film’s gritty portrayal of crime and violence as well as its pretense-free production value. But the respect it has garnered is all the more impressive when contemplating the context of the decade in which it was made. The cinematic landscape of the 1970s was one of remarkable and largely unseen brutality. Some of the very best revenge films were forged in the fire of this sweltering decade. Death Wish, Rolling Thunder, Walking Tall, Breaking Point, Fighting Mad; the list goes on and on. In many of these films, it falls upon one man to face down insurmountable odds; the bravado displayed serving as a possible explanation as to why these films resonate so strongly among male audiences.

The Man Behind the Man: Charles Bronson

If you are a man who enjoys classic film, I hardly need explain to you the iconic status of Charles Bronson. When prompted to produce a shortlist of the manliest men in cinema, even the most novice of film fans would place Bronson high upon that list with prestigious company such as Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne. He was a strong, quiet force of coiled power with a weathered face and one of filmdom’s all time greatest moustaches. His voice was soft but icy and he could as easily defeat enemies with his fists as he could with a gun. Bronson himself is every bit as manly as any of the characters he played. He worked in a mine as a youngster, the paramount of blue-collar professions, and was a veteran of World War II decorated with a Purple Heart. Bronson personified man’s toughness, but he was also never a bully.

One Final Toast

The Death Wish franchise chugged along to a fifth installment, suffering a marked decline in quality from sequel to sequel; a predicament faced by many film franchises. I will say however that Death Wish 2 and Death Wish 3 are tremendously entertaining if admittedly stripped of any remaining shred of social commentary. But if we are going to celebrate Paul Kersey for his taking pride in and affecting severe change upon his community, at the very least Death Wish 3 deserves special mention. Kersey moves into an even worse neighborhood than his first one, and he rallies the locals into forming a makeshift army to fight the criminal scourge. By the end, Kersey is leveling dilapidated buildings wherein the thugs have made their hideout and reigning down so much destruction upon their nefarious empire that it might as well have been titled Death Wish 3: Extreme Urban Renewal.

Categories: Reel Men
Tags: death wish
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