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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Death Wish (1974) and Vengeance

How ‘Death Wish’ exemplifies Crimes Pursued by Vengeance, one of the 36 Dramatic Situations.
By  · Published on September 10th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t take the law into your own hands.

Part 33 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Crime Pursued By Vengeance” with the best-damned example of it – Death Wish.

The Synopsis

After a home invasion leaves his wife dead and his daughter raped and comatose, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) takes matters and a nickle-plated revolver into his own hands to rid the streets of the mugging, raping, car-jacking scum by gunning them down as judge, jury, and executioner.

The Situation

Crime. Pursued. By Vengeance. By far the most intensely-named dramatic situation, “Crime Pursued by Vengeance” keeps it simple and deadly. All it takes is an Avenger and a Criminal. In the case of Death Wish, there are a lot of criminals, and they all have a lot of bullets coming to them courtesy of a very, very pissed off Charles Bronson.

The Film

There is no film that exemplifies this ideal better. There are more emotionally deep, more ingenious, more complex examples, but nothing comes close to reverberating in the bone structures of an audience like the raw power of an otherwise peaceful man taking a human life for the first time and loving it.

Although genre purists reject this as a Revenge Film (it’s a Vigilante Film), the simple truth is that, spurred on by crime, Charles Bronson picks up a gun and does something about it.

Death Wish gives us a gruff hero that has been devastated by a murderous reality that lived on the streets outside and crossed a line by welcoming itself into his home. It challenges the audience to fathom the profound loss that Kersey experiences – arriving at a hospital to learn that his wife has died and that his sexually-assaulted daughter might never wake up again. There’s little experiential connective tissue there. Not much for an audience to relate to. But while it leaves the watcher overcome with awe, there’s a shared feeling of dread and helplessness. Most haven’t had to experience such news, but most all have experienced some sort of traumatic loss (and wanted to do something, anything about it in the face of powerlessness).

As well as being the epitome of Crime Pursued by Vengeance, it’s also a unique example in that Kersey never takes revenge directly (the genre purists are right). The three men (including a very young Jeff Goldblum) that take everything from him are never seen again. Thus, Crime in this instance is literally the idea and action of Crime itself. Although it’s a specific instance that acts as catalyst – it’s not the murder and rape that Kersey is pursuing with his nickle-plated vengeance. It’s the greater epidemic of crime that gnaws at the city, leaving it diseased and desperate.

Plus, there’s a bonus example of the situation within the film’s story as the police pursue Kersey’s crimes with vengeance of their own. Ultimately, that vengeance is bordered by mercy when they allow him to hop a train to Chicago instead of seeing him face the gallows as a multiple murderer.

It might feel uncomfortable to cheer for a man killing without impunity, but by the end of the film, the audience has solidly sided with a killer who raises his fingers in the shape of a gun at a group of Chicago thugs hassling an old woman as a silent promise that vengeance (and a sequel) will be coming for them soon enough.

Bonus Examples: The Fugitive, Old Boy, Ben-Hur, Boondock Saints

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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