September 10, 2007

One Good "Sentence"

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I’ll admit that Death Sentence, from director James Wan caught me by surprise. I expected a conventional revenge movie, and while those elements are there, this film also has something special about it. As a disclaimer, I am sucker for a good revenge movie (Man on Fire is a personal favorite), so if you’re the type that only like pretentious independent French movies that take place on remote villas where everyone is having an affair with everyone else, then you probably will not like this movie.

In the film, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is loving family man married to Helen (Kelly Preston) with whom he has two kids, Brendan and Lucas. One night Nick and Brendan make a pit stop at a local gas station that promptly gets raided by a gang of hooligans. Brendan winds gets killed as part of their gangster hijinks as Nick looks on. One gang member is captured, and Nick and family are determined to put him away for life yet he winds up free. Nick, frustrated with the criminal justice system, decides to handle matters on his own. In so doing he ends up taking on the entire gang, condemning himself and his family to an endless cycle of violence and suffering.

While this premise suggests a direct-to-video Steven Segal film from the early 90s, that is not the case. What makes Death Sentence special is that it is less a revenge movie then a character study of a man whose life gets gradually eaten away, consumed by violence and endless sorrow. For most of the film, Nick is an ordinary guy that gets caught in a vicious cycle of violence. At no point does he become a veritable one-man army in the manner of Charles Brosnan in the Death Wish series (this, of course, brings to mind the fictional Death Wish 9: I Wish I Was Dead referenced in The Simpsons).

The action scenes serve to immerse the audience in Nick’s emotional maelstrom as he is forced to unwillingly process emotions that he never had reason to feel before. This gradually triggers his metamorphosis from family man and solid citizen to something far different. This transition is done in such a way that it appears natural rather than forced. Credit must go to the script and to Kevin Bacon, who seems to disappear into the role of Nick Hume. At the end of the film Hume is completely changed but the audience never loses its connection with him. This is perhaps one of Bacon’s best roles, and he certainly has come a long way from playing victim # 7 in Friday the 13th.
The film is not free of flaws though. While the script develops Nick Hume’s character, the villains don’t receive the same courtesy. Though the audience witnesses their casual disregard for human life, it is never as jarring as I suspect Wan wanted it to be. The viewer wants them dead but is never genuinely terrified by them.

The direction by James Wan deserves special mention. In Saw, Wan’s direction was very fast-paced and at some points more like a music video. In Death Sentence, it is calmer and focused. He draws the audience into Nick’s emotional turmoil gradually and opts for subtlety instead of the in-your-face approach he used in Saw. This is evident in the final frame of the film, which powerfully juxtaposes Nick Hume’s broken character at the end with his idyllic one at the beginning. The score by Charlie Clouser meshes well with Wan’s subtle approach.

The film is not perfect by any means, and there are flaws to find if you go looking. There are contrived plot devices that show up here and there but again, they only hurt the movie if you let them. The central purpose of the film is to make a revenge flick filtered through a nuanced character study. It is in the succesful composition of these two elements that the movie succeeds.