31 Days of Hell: Vengeance Is Sweet: Death Sentence (Reviewed)

Some of the most darkest and harrowing film experiences of all time are not horror movies. Darren Aronofsky's 1999 masterpiece Requiem for a Dream is a perfect example of a dramatic character piece that's scarier and more terrifying than almost any flick with the "horror" label attached to its name. While dredging through the dusty digital annals of the Netflix streaming vault, I came across another to add to that list: James Wan's 2007 adaptation of Death Sentence. This is a film with an extraordinarily bleak outlook on the necessary and unnecessary evils of humankind. Its horrors aren't in jump scares and atmosphere, but in the very depths of our hearts, and how extreme circumstances can turn even the best of men cruel. It's not a horror film, even if it does come from one of the genre's most gifted filmmakers, but its capacity to horrify is unbound from the confines of categorization. You could call this a "revenge movie," but if you pop this sucker in expecting Kill Bill, you're in for one hell of a shock.

The first comparison apt to pop into most minds is to Death Wish. Probably because the novel upon which this was based is a direct sequel to Death Wish, written by Brian Garfield. The author despised director Michael Winner's screen adaptation of his material so much (all immortalization of Charles Bronson aside), he withheld the rights to Death Sentence for decades. Well, it turns out that was all for naut: This film's resemblance to the novel ends with the title. The events in Death Wish aren't so much as mentioned, even in that tongue-in-cheek meta way we come to expect from most modern films based on popular source material. James Wan and his screenwriter, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, have taken the core moral dilemmas of the novel, crafted their own story, and presented us with a stripped down machine of raw intensity.

At the center of this tightly wound vehicle is a performance from one of the most reliable character actors of his generation, Kevin Bacon. Someone please watch this film and then explain to me why this man has never received an Oscar nomination. He plays Nick Hume with the precise note the movie needs. His family -- a wife and two sons -- are presented to us via home video footage. This could be hokey, but it comes off honest, like we're getting a genuine voyeuristic glimpse into a life. Nick Hume is relatable, likable, pays his taxes, wants his first born son to be a superstar athlete, and he's married to Kelly "My God You're Still Hot at 50" Preston. What more could a typical suburbanite want? It seems like all of life is working out according to plan.

We know what happens to "all good things"...

"Do you feel lucky?"

Wan's film really begins with a scene so random, graphic, unfair, needlessly cruel, and -- worst of all -- so familiar, it hits the audience like a sucker punch to the gut. It's over in an instant, as are most events that have the capacity to completely strip us of all presumptions we may have about law and order in the universe. We're left aghast, breathless, and shocked. All of existence for Nick Hume is suddenly thrown into a blender where all rules are breakable, where the blacks and whites of morality morph together into a sickening grey that permeates the color palette of the film itself. As a father, I found myself firmly planted into the character's shoes and asking myself, "What would I do?"

What follows is all gravy. Or should I say, bacon? It's Kevin Bacon's show, and he's more than equal to the task. He carries the film effortlessly, always earning our sympathy even when he might not deserve it, and his performance elevates the sizzling visual style of James Wan to a level of high art. Bacon's psychological and physical transformation over the course of the film is one of its pinnacle highlights. Another is a foot chase that is among the best ever shot. Starting with gunfire in the city streets of North Carolina, John R. Leonetti's nimble cinematography propels us forward at breakneck speed through alleyways, restaurant kitchens, and finally through a parking garage. Once there, we follow Bacon in a single shot that passes through jagged passageways, and even floats between floors of parked cars, all with handheld cameras. Wan chooses to shoot this action almost entirely with wide angle lenses so the action is never muddled; the sheer kinetic energy of the floor rushing beneath the lens is palpable. It's an astounding and invigorating chase for all the right reasons we go to the movies in the first place: We understand the motivations, we care, and the craftsmanship enhances our interest.

In the end, what impressed me most about Death Sentence is simply the gaul of James Wan to follow this story to its fateful end. There's a logic to the storytelling that lends realistic heft to every scene; we aren't just waiting around for the next action sequence. Most revenge thrillers tend to lean very heavily on leaps of faith and comic relief to break the tension. Wan doesn't believe in that. Even his quiet dialogue scenes, populated by a superb cast including none other than John Goodman, Aisha Tyler, and Garrett Hedlund, keep the tension wound tight because of the relationships the script takes the time to build up. Relationships and family are what this film is all about. Not just what they mean to us, but to what lengths we may go to avenge them when the world takes them from us so cruelly. And like Nick Hume, we may surprise -- and disgust -- ourselves.


-- Blake O. Kleiner