...or, for the Walking Tall fans among us, Part II: Due Vigilance.
First, welcome to those who found Reaction Shot by way of my recent Slate article. Happy to have you here.
Second, I'd like to expand on a few ideas I wasn't able to fully address in the piece due to my nemesis, the Word Count. In all honesty, I won't be able to fully address them here, either, but I will expound just a little, to give you a sense of how complicated the relationships among vengeance, vigilantism and American movies can become.
Notion 1: Vengeance and "True" Vigilantism are the Same but Different.
In many vigilante movies, the hero seeks revenge on the criminals who done him (or her) wrong. But in the movies I think of as "true vigilante" movies, the hero goes after crime in general. Death Wish, in which the punks who annihilate Charles Bronson's family are never seen nor heard from again, is an example of the latter. Death Wish II, in which Bronson hunts down the gang members who rape his daughter, is an example of the former. They're closely related, of course--it's not like Death Wish and Death Wish II belong to different genres.
Still, the difference in Bronson's obsessions is an important one. Vengeance is a closed system; when the last punk is killed, Bronson can hang it all up. But vigilantism in the stricter sense of the word is open-ended. Bronson has to sustain a nearly-mortal wound to bring the business of Death Wish to a close. This is why "true" (or perhaps better, "truer") vigilante movies such as and Death Wish and Ms. 45 have a more pronounced undercurrent of the hero's self-destructiveness, and with it, more of an implicit critique of vigilantism than do their more narrowly constructed counterparts. Vengeance against a specific enemy is a forward thrusting drive toward the resolution of something; vigilantism is the drive to resolve something that cannot be resolved.
Notion 2: Hey, Cops are Vigilantes, Too
At least one Slate reader--and screenwriter Steven E. de Souza--have pointed out that "Dirty" Harry Callahan and is brethren are not vigilantes because they are the police. That is, they are part of the system. This does differentiate them from the Charles Bronson-mode of movie vigilante, but again, they are close cousins. See, vigilantism isn't just about the hero. It's also about the system. Vigilantes take extralegal action when the legal system lacks either the will or the resources to arrest the problem itself. It doesn't matter then, that Harry has a gun and a badge. What matters is how he uses them--especially relative to how he is sanctioned to use them by the state.
Notion 3: We Are All In a Box
It's easy to reduce the resurgence of the vigilante to September 11 or Iraq. But as I said on Air America this past Friday, it's bigger than Iraq, if something could indeed be bigger than the cluster-screw that is Iraq. 9/11 and Iraq are certainly part of the frustration that vigilante movies are responding to, as my article indicates. But the bigger issue is how all of our political and social maladies have metastasized into a sense of our own powerlessness.
I received an unwanted lesson in this while writing the article. My wife, who was in a bizarre and fairly terrible elevator accident at work some months back, had been receiving physical therapy. After a certain number of sessions, the insurer seemed to be cutting her off, and when I pursued the matter with a workman's comp attorney, I learned this sobering fact: apparently, Governor Schwarzenegger has seen to it that in situations such as these, a patient can no longer press his or her claim to a higher, independent authority. That is, the insurer (not a doctor or judge) now has the final say on whether your workman's comp insurance will pay to complete your treatment for injuries sustained on the job.
I remember holding the phone to my ear, staring out the window at the Westwood skyline, and blinking. "How can this be?" I asked. It truly made no sense. My wife and I were without recourse, without means of redress. And then I understood--more than I had before--the appeal of vigilantism. The appeal isn't fundamentally rooted in crime, or in bad things happening; it's rooted in how powerless we are rendered in trying to respond.
This feeling that we cannot chart our own course or steer our own ship
can be enough to make us feel--in bite-sized, two-hour chunks of lost time, at least--like getting off the damn boat. It's enough to make us think that there must be a better way of reaching the New World.