Monday, November 8, 2010

Is retribution justice? Lex talonis and torture porn

Last evening, I had the opportunity to sit through a film called Law Abiding Citizen. (Released in 2009, directed by F. Gary Gray, starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, written by Kurt Wimmer.) While enjoying the film, something began to nag at me, and when the thought occurred, it would not leave.

The plot, briefly: the home of Clyde Shelton (Butler) is invaded, his wife and daughter murdered and he is beaten. The assistant district attorney Nick Rice (Foxx), to get a conviction, cuts a deal, and one of the two guilty parties is given a drastically reduced sentence. Shelton then goes on a killing spree, following the Lex Talonis, an eye for an eye, killing those he perceives to be guilty. Rice is involved in the case, both in tracking and attempting to put Shelton behind bars. People are executed on screen in a variety of ways that are entertaining for those who find such things entertainment. (Like me.)

The film is well made, shot very noir-style, and the performances are nicely done. (Foxx and Butler own this film.) What brought my to writing this particular piece was the notion that I had seen the film before, but it was called The Abominable Dr. Phibes. A wronged man seeks redress, and those from whom he seeks it must suffer.

This plot has been used again and again, to varying effect: Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Theater Of Blood (my personal favorite), the Saw and Hostel series, among many, many others. Even the original Friday The Thirteenth can be seen as falling into this category.

What really cemented this was the DVD extra feature on Law Abiding Citizen that refers to the legal aspect of the film. While the legal portion of the film is far from flawless, the mini-documentary discusses the basic plot line and the focus of the film, which is the jurisprudence system in the United States, and the reasons why certain things happen, and must happen, and why it can be perceived as a complete failure.

This theme of Failed Justice is what brings us to the notion of Lex Talonis, an eye for an eye. There is a sub-genre of film called the Revenge Film, usually attached to a sexual assault. Here, we get to see something known as Let The Punishment Fit The Crime.

These films play on a fear, the fear that the system can and does work, but when the right unfortunate series of events take place, it not only fails but appears to mock itself. Villains are allowed freedom and safe passage while the victim is now sport, the punchline to a sick joke.

In the horror version of this type of plot, justice is meted out in the most brutal of means. Body parts are removed (in Hannibal, feet were going to be eaten off of a living human by ravenous pigs), death comes in a variety of peculiar, Rube Goldberg means and, most important for this genre, the villain is reduced to victim and knows that a painful demise awaits.

Make that: a slow, painful demise. Not only must the punishment fit the crime, it must now surpass it. Innocents are offered up as sacrifice; children, spouses and loved ones (dogs in Theater Of Blood) must be harmed, as the villain in question can stand anything and everything but not the pain suffered by others. This is Justice in Orwell's Room 101: what awaits is the worst thing in the world, and the worst thing differs from one human being to another.

The underlying notion then of Justice Failed must needs be turned to Lex Talonis has become a barometer of the audience's response, a societal pulse. Can we accept this? Has it become necessary in our 21st century life?

Taking this one more step back, and we find the point of crossover, as shown in the film Death Wish. Again, there is a home invasion, murder and rape, and the wronged man begins to hunt down and kill the villains... as a vigilante. Lex talonis belongs to the vigilante, and that then opens this concept to the entire mythos of two figures: Batman and Daredevil. Young men, parent/parents killed, life dedicated to justice: an eye for an eye, and let the beatings commence.

When we are treated (if that term can be used here) to the slow agony of destruction of the flesh, when the punishment seems to not only be attached to the crime but reaching into the play book of the Marquis de Sade, then we start moving from an eye for an eye and into an eye, a tooth, a foot.... just so the audience can see the blood and torment. However, going back to Law Abiding Citizen, we are shown the machinery of death, and often the results, but not the slow agony. Thus, we do not consider it "torture," because we do not see or hear the screams.

This, then, is the bottom line: there is no difference. If we see onscreen a man being buried alive, screaming and clawing and gasping for Just One More Breath, what is the difference is we only find his twisted corpse, the aftermath? Both images are the same: this person was buried alive. The death would be both slow and painful, and tormenting to the soul and psyche.

Why, then, are we being treated to long scenes of agony?

I think it is due to a sense of impotence, a complete loss of personal power. Any idiot with access to a credit card can rent a box truck and purchase enough chemicals to blow up a building and everyone in it; a jet can be overcome and used a human-guided missile. This is our world. When it comes home, when the chickens come to roost, we see ourselves as we are: powerless, wronged and angry. We want justice, and we have slowly but surely begun to surrender any hope of that being seen in a court of law, and in these types of films we are seeing the results.

This is both good and bad. Good as (hopefully, God willing) allows us a form of catharsis, an option to release the rage against the world without actually harming anyone. Bad in that is underscores the sense that the only true justice comes from the barrel of a gun or the point of a knife... or a chainsaw.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Grace (2009) Film review

Written and directed by Paul Solet (and dedicated to his mother, which only makes it creepier), starring Jordan Lad as Madeline Matheson, Stephen Park as Michael Matheson, Samantha Ferris as Patricia Lang and Gabrielle Rose as Vivian Matheson (mother of Michael).

This won't be for everyone. Slow of pace and going for the disturbing rather than shock and grotesque, it succeeds where others can only dream of attempting. The plot: Madeline Matheson is pregnant after two failed attempts, and has chosen to go to a midwife (Patricia Lang) who has had some kind of prior relationship with her, possibly a lesbian affair. Mother Matheson dislikes and distrusts anything not attached to a clean, white hospital, and goes out of her way to undermine every choice Madeline makes. There is a horrific car accident, Micheal dies, and her unborn child is declared dead in utero. Madeline decides to carry the dead child to term, and on birthing her (Grace, the title character of the film), holds the body and wills it to life. From there, everything turns sideways.

The film industry as a whole tends to shy away from showing strong willed women, and here all of the female characters are stronger than the men. This does not mean that the women are perfect, in fact they are all deeply wounded by their own decisions and pasts. As this thing progresses, the characters are all displayed, warts and all, and therein lies it greatest strength. There is a villain of sorts in the mother, but once the film shows her as both hateful and controlling, it then shows the agony of losing a child.

There are two intimate moments of sexuality shown in the film. At the opening, Michael and Madeline are shown trying to conceive. Madeline is totally removed from the sex, staring at the ceiling, no emotional response, and Michael is merely the donor. This chilling effect drains any type of erotica that may have otherwise been used to draw us in, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The other is when Vivian is shown slipping into her husbands bed. In an earlier scene, Serge Houde as Henry Matheson (father of Michael) is trying to comfort his wife, and she declares (note this) his (not theirs, but his) room is a pigsty, indicating a sock on the bed. When she later slips into his bed, reaching beneath the covers to arouse and waken him, I had a happy moment: Hurrah for the geriatric brigade! Still gettin' busy at that age, and when they start to make love, the scene takes a sudden shift, and it goes from a potentially erotic scene to a deeply disturbing display of just how nuts mother has become.

There is blood, and blood aplenty, but that is merely an underscoring of what the film is doing. Approach with a certain level of caution: as stated earlier, it is not for everyone.

There are a few plot holes, and a number of times when the limited budget shows through, but the overall effect is not unlike that of 8MM or Hard Candy. Creepy, disturbing and ugly, in all of the ways most films, again, only wish they could be when approaching distasteful topics.