"Death Sentence" is not a horror film in the conventional sense, but it's easily more unnerving than a lot of what passes for the genre these days. Ruthlessly graphic, savagely gory, and unrelentingly moody, the picture is nonetheless a departure for director James Wan, whose career thus far has consisted of 2004's mediocre "Saw
" and 2007's disappointing "Dead Silence
." In moving away from death traps and possessed dolls, Wan turns serious as he contemplates the human struggle of becoming a vigilante and the unexpected seduction bred out of violence. By exploring this subject, "Death Sentence" pushes some hot buttons while exploding off the screen in a wave of brutality that never lets up. Viewed as entertainment, the film is equally unpleasant and captivating. As a more serious drama, it alternates between heartbreaking and heavy-handed.
Kevin Bacon (2004's "The Woodsman
") stars as Nick Hume, an office executive and proud husband and father whose world is shattered after witnessing the senseless gang-initiation murder of eldest son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty). When it doesn't appear as if there will be enough evidence to convict the guilty Joe Darley (Matthew O'Leary), Nick makes the life-altering decision to drop the case in exchange for waging some old-fashioned vengeance on the thugs responsible. By doing so, however, Nick unknowingly jumpstarts a to-the-death war that leaves unsuspecting wife Helen (Kelly Preston) and 14-year-old son Lucas (Jordan Garrett) the central targets of vicious leader Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) and his posse. With minimal help being offered by Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler), Nick is powerless to stop the battle that has already begun.
"Death Sentence" begins by showing candid clips from the Humes' home movies, and by the time the opening credits are over the viewer has already invested their rooting interest in this suburban family of four. Interesting, how director James Wan and first-time screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers are able to be so economical and judicious with their footage that one almost instantly cares about and feels like he or she knows the characters, while another film opening on the same release date, Rob Zombie's "Halloween
," is haphazardly unable to create hardly anyone worth liking throughout an entire 109-minute span. The emotional bond earned within the brief first act of "Death Sentence" is crucial, because once "golden boy" Brendan's life is cruelly stolen from him in a scene of immense power and heartache, it is easy to buy into Nick's lust for revenge. The depiction of a family in mournful disrepair strikes a resonant note, and Nick's proceeding murder of Joe as payback is at once cathartic and yet as repulsive and vicious as it might sound.
From this point on, "Death Sentence" resembles 1974's "Death Wish," and there is a reason for that: its source material, a novel by Brian Garfield, was originally written as a sequel to his own "Death Wish." Whereas the earlier Charles Bronson effort was decidedly exploitative, "Death Sentence" dares to go deeper into the idea that violent crimes beget more violence, and at the end of the day, it solves nothing. With that said, it isn't made clear exactly where the film's moral stance lies, and because of this, the endinga barrage of bloodshed culminating in a final scene that is ambiguous in its intentionsisn't as satisfying as much of what has come before it.
What does come before the climax, by the way, is pretty riveting stuff, and the film's lack of compromise leads to a few shockingly bleak developments. Though rocky in spotsthe machinations of the plot grow increasingly far-fetched, the sudsy soundtrack is manipulative, and Wan can't resist tossing in the occasional glaring cliché, as when Nick tearfully collapses while in the shower"Death Sentence" is otherwise extremely well-made. Beneath the onscreen ugliness is a downtrodden but still beating human heart, and it is this real and raw emotional identification with the Hume family that withholds the movie's succession of death and mayhem.
One standout sequence stands out above the rest: a bravura foot chase through grimy backstreets and city alleyways that segues to a game of cat-and-mouse in a muti-level parking garage. That long sections of this are achieved in long takes and without any cutting is simply amazing. Stylistically recalling 2006's exquisite "Children of Men
," the expertise of the cinematography, sound effects (car alarms, Nick's worn-out breathlessness), and invaluable tension join together to create a too-rare cinematic magic that gives the impression that the viewer is being dropped within the action.
As the mild-mannered-turned-calculating-killer Nick, Kevin Bacon impresses with one of the more solid, committed and touching performances of the year. The arc his character experiences demands a vast range, and Bacon is just the actor to inhabit the role of an enraged man who thinks he's lost everything until he loses more. Kelly Preston (2005's "Sky High
") and Jordan Garrett (2005's "Thank You for Smoking
") lend memorable support as wife Helen and surviving son Lucas, the latter plagued by suspicions that his dad loved his late brother more than him. As head villain Billy Darley, Garrett Hedlund (2007's "Georgia Rule
") oozes with a cold-blooded sliminess that makes his character easy to hate, while John Goodman (2007's "Freshman Orientation
") is astonishingly effective as an underground arms dealer with ties to both sides of the fight. Of the central performances, Aisha Tyler (2007's "Balls of Fury
") is the weak line. Detective Wallis fits uncomfortably into the story and appears to have disrespectful bedside manners besides, and Tyler's monotone turn doesn't help to circumvent the poor writing of the character.
For starved, remorseless fans of balls-to-the-wall brutishness, "Death Sentence" will greatly satisfy a certain segment of the audience. Meanwhile, the squeamish will run screaming for the exits. For me, director James Wan has just earned grace points. His third directorial motion picture is neither great nor seamless, but it is his best yet, signifying a real desire to show the range he has by growing beyond the slasher genre that made him famous. "Death Sentence" does what it sets out to do with electrifying relish. It's not what one would call subtle, but it's also not the kind of film that needs to be.