Cinematic Exploration: The Evolution of Murder in Cinema Part 4: (2000-2009)

Revenge is a powerful motive that has fueled many of cinemas most violent scenes. The "eye for an eye" rationale has inspired some of the industries most emotional and bloody films. Aside from the sadistic serial killer story line, revenge is one of the most dominant themes when it comes to the depiction of murder and violence on screen. The motivation has transcended all language films since the beginning of the medium, and has been a driving force in storytelling, dating back to the earliest written works of man. 2001’s In The Bedroom offered an intimate look at a couple coping with injustice after the murder of their son. Weaved with pain and fury, many viewers felt the agony depicted on screen. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards. Starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Middleton, Bedroom reveals the layers and depths one descends while entangled in the grasps of revenge. Despite the knowledge and even self conscience that murder is wrong, the characters are driven to do so to fulfill vigilante justice. This frightening motivation has made for some compelling films, and is a theme that never goes out of style. At the heart of these plots is a scary and relatable subconscious that reveals how fragile we all are when our lives are destroyed and we are left with nothing.  

The Vengeance Trilogy of Park Chan-wook

In 2002 Korean director Park Chan-wook released Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. With a plot that revolves around a kidnap for ransom gone wrong, the mishap creates a domino effect of unfortunate events. In terms of murder depicted on screen, it is an isolated tale where few lives are taken compared to shoot 'em up style films. The significance of Mr. Vengeance is the realm of emotions, and the obsessive driving force to kill a person for the justice of another. Like all good conflicts, there is a struggle of morality in the story. Yet revenge is often a train running out of control, where even the conscience fails to reason what is right and wrong. It is a numbing film, yet depicts the length a person is willing to go when they have lost all hope. 

Old Boy (2003) is a dark tale of a man obsessed with obtaining justice after being held captive for 15 years. Oh Dae-su's incarceration left him with a burning rage to find and kill his captor who he suspects murdered his wife during his imprisonment. The film is a gritty story fueled by blind violence. At the height of the violence is a long hallway scene where a hammer is used as a weapon. Dae-su wields the tool in a raw primal rage as the primitive emotions of the human spirit are engulfed and released in a ballistic fury. There is no thought process, and all ideals of humanity are abandoned. Dau-su inflicts blow after blow, attacking any man that stands between him and his desire for revenge, even putting his own life at risk to do so. Wook again creates a conflict of morality for viewers, twisting perspectives in a memorable chilling climax. 

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005) is the final installment in wook’s vengeance trilogy. The film dives deeper into the inner psyche of revenge. It is a raw emotion that in many ways attacks the mind like an illness. Once it takes hold, it consumes the entire being. There is no joy or pleasure, only the driving force to get even. In Lady Vengeance, to get even is the only cure. When Lee Geum-ja's daughter is kidnapped, she is blackmailed to confess to a crime she didn't commit to save her daughter's life. After spending 13 years in prison, she sets her sights on obtaining her own justice. The film displays how dark the heart can become when it is consumed with revenge, and highlights the inner turmoil of becoming a monster to combat a monster. In the end, sometimes revenge just isn't enough.

Overall wook’s vengeance trilogy offers a look into the souls of the broken. While the majority of the population have the common sense to identify right and wrong, the audience is given permission to sympathize with the character's actions. This makes their erratic behavior easy to understand. No matter how dark they become, or what lengths they must go to, their actions are justified no matter the cost. 

Battle Royale (2000)

Eight years before author Susan Collins released The Hunger Games, new wave Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku released Battle Royale, his controversial final film. Set in a dystopian future, the film forces a junior high school class to fight each other in a battle to the death on a remote island. The twisted plot also forced each child to wear an explosive collar that would detonate if they did not participate in the game of death. Armed with a variety of deadly weapons, the children battle one another in hopes of being the lone survivor. Debuting in Tokyo in 2000, the film received the rarely used R-15 rating in Japan (no one under 15 admitted). After its release, the film was quickly banned from distribution in several countries. Royale put school children in an adult war time scenario, and the realistic depiction of violence against children has always been a taboo subject in cinema. The Japanese government called the film "crude and tasteless," with many officials claiming the sensationalized violence would lead to a youth crime wave. After its release in Japan the film was screened for a test audience in the United States with a handful of American lawyers in attendance. The result was an overwhelming negative response. It's important to note this screening occurred just months after the Columbine High School Massacre. Royale was bashed for its harsh and mindless violence. It was ultimately Japanese executives who decided to withhold distribution to North America for fear of legal backlash. The film wouldn't get an official North American release until 2011, 11 years after its debut in Japan.

American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho is a psychological horror film that looks at the manifestation of a killer who’s sociopath behavior is driven by success and white privilege. While many prior serial killer films showcase the isolation and social detachment of a killer, American Psycho presents a well mannered and handsome man with a vanity complex. The ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing. The cool and calculated nature of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is almost soothing for viewers, that is until he lets go of all reservations. What follows isn't just violent, it is outrageous rage. The metaphoric flick of the switch is shocking as Bateman uses axes and chainsaws to kill victims he invites to his apartment. The middle ground for Bateman is the anticipation right before the kill. The adrenaline makes him antsy, and he loses his otherwise cool persona as he babbles on about music. The killer behind the playboy facade is a frightening look at a highly functioning sociopath's ability to blend in with society. In a shocking ending where Bateman admits his guilt, no one believes he is capable of such a heinous crime, echoing the satirical privileges of the upper class. In real life, cases involving sociopaths often prove to be the most difficult to solve.

Frailty (2001)

The bible is full of stories of vengeance and persecution. From the first murder committed by man, to the slaughter of all male infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Christ child. In 2001 Bill Paxton directed and starred in Frailty, a film that uses the vengeance of God as its theme. Acting as a modern day Benaiah, Mieks (Paxton) sees himself as the muscle of God, using his righteous beliefs as a constitution to help cleanse the world of demons. Raising his sons to believe his same fanatic beliefs, Mieks slays multiple "demons" in the name of God. Mieks' delusional perception of morality creates and interesting conflict. To rid the world of sin, he must commit the sin of murder. His actions are justified by the belief he is protected by God and is doing the Lord's bidding by acting as God's hand. The blind faith fueled vengeance sets up several eerie scenarios, and at times even Mieks shows remorse for his victims who have lost their way and fallen out of the grace of God. He sees his actions as a service, helping the victims redeem their soul. The angelic disposition of Mieks is a compelling look at those who use the scripture to murder others in an effort to baptize the world to fit their preferred vision.

Quentin Tarantino - Part 2

The death toll in Tarantino’s first three films totaled 22 fatalities. Although in a cinematic perspective, the films were nowhere near as violent in comparison to the Godfather Trilogy, which had a headcount of 67 lives, not counting the horse. That all changed in 2003 with the release of Kill Bill Vol 1Written as a homage to the classic kung-fu/ slaughter house films of the '70s, Tarantino's modern spin is a bloodbath of epic proportions. Starring Uma Thurman as assassin Beatrice Kiddo, the film ranks as one of most violent in regards to on screen deaths. Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2 would leave a death toll of 75 victims, more than tripling the death count in Tarantino's first three films combined. The House Of Blue Leaves club scene is wild display of carnage. The fight sequence used several stylized film techniques as The Bride dismembered, beheaded, and disemboweled dozens of henchmen. Tarantino and the production team used classic film techniques to execute the wild display of carnage, and used fire extinguishers and condoms filled with fake blood to create the aggressive blood splatter. Thurman's fierce performance left behind a trail of mutilated bodies as she made her way through each adversary who did her wrong in the ultimate "even Steven" tale of revenge.

With quirky villains and catchy retro soundtracks, the murder and mayhem in Tarantino's films quickly drew a loyal fan base, and the term “Tarantino film” became common when discussing similar themed violent movies. With each new film, there is an element of desensitization that occurs. At the end of the day, it is a movie’s purpose to entertain. Embellishments in film has been a standard practice since the dawn of the art form. Exaggerated scenes of action and romance paved a profitable road for many studios. The upward body count trend would continue with each new film Tarantino release post Kill Bill, with Death Proof being the only exception. Although the film’s gruesome car wreak scene ranks among one of the most horrific in cinematic history. To elevate the shock factor,  the scene is repeated a handful of times from different angles, showcasing each passengers morbid end. 

Elephant (2003)

The second film in director Gus Van Sant's "Death Trilogy" (three consecutive films based on by real life deaths) was inspired by a highly debated and touchy subject - The Columbine High School Massacre. Four years removed from the tragedy, the amply named Elephant focused on the behind the scenes issues few people wanted to talk about. There is a scary realism to the film that follows the lives of a group of teenagers days before two fellow students go on a shooting spree. Van Sant chose new non-professional actors for the roles, and the cast's natural performances as casual teenagers gives the film a believable tone. Although Elephant is a fictional tale, the tragic events that inspired the film echo throughout the movie. The film was praised by many critics for tackling the subject and shining a light on an issue that sadly would become a common occurrence in the decade that followed. In 2005 the film was briefly blamed for a similar attack that occurred at the Red Lake Senior High School in Minnesota that resulted in 10 deaths. The 16 year old perpetrator had viewed Van Sant's film two weeks earlier and, according to a friend, had fast forwarded through most the film and just watched the massacre scene. The accusations that Elephant inspired the attack were quickly tossed aside. 

Film critic Roger Ebert said it best when he praised the film for it's non-stylized approach to violence. "There is no pumped-up style, no lingering, no release, no climax. Van Sant has made an anti-violence film by draining violence of energy, purpose, glamour, reward, and social context." Without the typical Hollywood sensationalism, the gun violence depicted in the film becomes more real, blurring the lines between reality and movie detachment. The result is a film that unfolds so naturally, it's hard to turn away from no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.

Saw (2004)

Before the tide of less than stellar sequels, the original Saw was a fresh entrance into the horror genre. It was different than the slasher films that had saturated the market decades before. While the game of death scenario wasn’t new, Saw took the idea to another level, one that would hand pick individuals based on their social merits and place them in a situations of their own making. The play on morality created the classic good vs evil dynamic by approaching it from a reverse perspective. When two men find themselves captive and chained up inside a bathroom, they are presented with a puzzle that ultimately pairs the two against each other in a sick game. The stakes are high for both men, with one presented with the ultimatum of killing the other to save his wife and child who are being held captive in their home. The intriguing story and dark plot plays out like a demented Public Service Announcement, warning viewers about the consequences of improper life choices. 

Hostel (2005)

Director Eli Roth's sophomore film helped launch a new sub-genera of horror - Torture Porn. Borrowing heavily from some of the world's most notorious serial killers, Hostel exposes the driving force of many habitual killers. While often glossed over when depicted in films from prior decades, many serial killers commit murder for sexual release, and the act of committing murder is often an endorphin releasing form of foreplay. Evidence of this has been found in many real life high profile crime scenes, most often found in the form of semen, or sexual violation of the victim (both pre and post mortem). Hostel starts out slow, but eventually turns into a realistic gore fest as elite business men mutilate and kill unsuspecting European travelers who are drugged and kidnapped. It is a frightening look at the actions that occur behind the scenes in human trafficking, and how easily one can become a victim if not careful. Above all, it is a look at the blackness of the heart of those who’s sexual drive has manifested into a gross satisfaction achieved by the torture and destruction of another. With a variety of inflictions that include dismemberment, chainsaws, scalpels, and blowtorches, Hostel is a gory stomach churner. The film inspired several copycat style films, though few would compare to Roth's original look at the underground world of torture pornography. 

Funny Games (2007)

Perhaps the most frightening theme of murder is the random killing for fun. The true black heart of a sociopath. When life ceases to fulfill and boredom becomes too much to bear one kills for sport as a means of excitement. The terror of such actions unfolds in an unpredictable manner. Often there is no planning, or complex motive of revenge. It is a spontaneous turn of events with many victims being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. In real life cases, they are often the hardest to understand. With Funny Games, it is pure detachment, and a complete disregard for human life. While at their summer home, Peter and Paul decide to take out their neighbors one by one just for kicks. There is no pomp and circumstance in the form of masks or deliberate over the top creepy demeanor. The brothers are straight forward and approach the situation with a very matter of fact nature. To them, it is fun. It is a game that breaks the monotony of their dull lives. Writer/ director Michael Haneke gives the audience a very intimate view of this mindset by breaking the fourth wall. The killer occasionally look into the camera and address the viewers. They ask for their opinions and laugh while sharing their thoughts and contemplating hypothetical situations. It is a tactic that creates an uneasy tension for viewers. The brothers are in control and everyone else is just along for the ride.  

Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs is a unique film with a frightening motive. Fueled by philosophical prophecies of transcendence, this gut wrenching tale unfolds in layers, exposing the darkest depths of cruelty. The horrors begin when a woman name Anna is held captive and is repeatedly beaten. Her resistance only becomes her downfall as the torture becomes more severe. It is a tough watch as months of endured brutality slowly strip away the human spirit until Anna is reduced to a soul robbed of all elements of humanity. It is a grotesque routine of torture, recovery, and survival. After becoming dehumanized, Anna is pushed to the edge of sanity. It is an agonizing watch witnessing the lengths of punishment the body is able to endure. All answers are revealed in a shocking ending. In terms of murder depicted on screen, Anna's sole demise in Martyrs is one of the most ugly and brutal in all of film. Few movies can compare to the sheer horror portrayed in this frightening movie.

At the turn of the century, films made a big jump into the dark abyss of revenge and torture. After a couple of horrific real life events, violence and the depiction of death was briefly a taboo topic in Hollywood. But a few short years later those same tragic events were adapted for the big screen. With films like Elephant and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center One, real tragedies were being used to make compelling films. But most importantly these films served as a reminder of things we must never forget. The graphic depiction of murder was further established with special effects and memorable performances, while character development and motivation leapt to a new dark and twisted place. Films like The House of a 1000 Corpses and Wolf Creek shocked many with their brutal depictions of violence and murder. While the roles for on screen killers continued to develop, the physical act of killing reached a gruesome new level. By the end of the decade, the outrageous infliction of pain through torture became common in film, mirroring the advancements made in the '70s after the abolishment of the Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry. While murder in film continued to shock viewers, the spotlight had turned, focusing on dark perversions, and the physical act of inflicting as much punishment as possible.

--Lee L. Lind