Ordinary people have the power to stop crime and fight evil.
For the 2018 adaption of Death Wish, screenwriter Joe Carnahan (writer-director of Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The Grey) and director Eli Roth (Hostel, Hostel: Part II, The Green Inferno) teamed up with Bruce Willis, one of cinema’s most important and genre-expanding action stars, to look at this classic with fresh eyes, propelling this action-filled reimagination into a new era, with themes of crime, punishment, and the power to fight back at the forefront of the narrative.
The story was first told in Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel of the same name, and then in director Michael Winner’s 1974 landmark action drama, starring Charles Bronson and adapted by Oscar nominee Wendell Mayes.
“We dug in deep to crack the story and see how we could tell a story that was relatable to audiences today,” says producer Roger Birnbaum, who put this new version of Death Wish together with associate producer Stephen J. Eads and executive producer Ilona Herzberg. “We knew we couldn’t tell the same story as in the early ’70s. So much is different in our country right now. Paul Kersey is pushed to violence by his frustrations about the lack of resources that the police department have. Only when a clue actually lands in his lap does he decide to go after the criminals who attacked his family.”
Says Roth, “People have fantasies about cleaning up the streets, taking care of crime, and being a crime fighter. That’s one of the reasons superhero movies are so popular. It’s that idea that ordinary people have the power to stop crime and fight evil.”
Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has it all: A beautiful family, a lovely home and an exciting and meaningful career as a surgeon in the emergency room of a bustling hospital. But when Kersey’s wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is killed during a robbery attempt at their home and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) is left in a coma after fighting back against the three attackers, he enters a world he never planned for.
Emotionally shut down, Kersey leans on his brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) for help, and on Detectives Raines and Jackson (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) for any updates on the arrests of the men who did this to his family. As the police show Kersey a wall of unsolved cases and become resigned to the fact that his case will also go unsolved, something clicks in Kersey, a man who, as his brother Frank reminds him, used to be known for fighting back in the tough neighborhood they grew up in.
Walking into a local gun shop, Kersey decides to arm himself. But his role in the world is saving lives, not taking them. No matter who is wheeled into his emergency room, to Kersey, they’re all patients in need of attention. How could he seek justice on such harsh terms? Yet as Kersey ventures into the night, he finds innocent people being preyed upon. When he foils a violent carjacking and a bystander’s cellphone footage of it goes viral, the media gives this unknown guardian angel a dark nickname: “The Grim Reaper.” As Paul Kersey gets closer to Knox (Beau Knapp) – the criminal who killed his wife – the city, unaware of this mysterious justice-seeker’s motives, wonders how it will end.
“Paul Kersey isn’t experienced with firearms of any sort – he’s a doctor who spent his life trying to save lives,” says Birnbaum, whose long list of credits goes back over 30 years and include dramas (Washington Square, Seabiscuit, Invictus), comedies (The Sure Thing, Grosse Point Blank, Rush Hour), and actioners (Unbreakable, Wanted, Robocop (2014), The Magnificent Seven (2016)). “When Kersey first goes into the streets to find out who did this to his family, it doesn’t go smoothly.”
“Paul Kersey takes on an alternate identity,” says director Eli Roth. “By day, Kersey is a surgeon. At night, he goes out into the streets, becoming known as the Grim Reaper.”
The duality isn’t an instant fit: Kersey’s first act as a morally ambiguous, stealth Samaritan is spontaneous. When he sees the men carjacking a couple, he reacts. As the car speeds away, he takes aim and almost impulsively shoots at it. “But the perpetrators aren’t dead,” says Roth. “They get out and start shooting at him, and he has to fire back. It’s this moment of pure animal adrenaline.”
“I wanted a moment of transformation, where Kersey realizes he could save a bad guy – that’s what he does every day – but he makes the choice not to,” says Roth. “We see Kersey move his own moral goal posts. He’s a normal guy who’s ethical and moral, and he keeps pushing the line further in order to justify his own actions.”
Willis, whose performances have always contained a deep and layered understanding of his characters and the times they live in, saw Paul Kersey as a man who laid down, and followed, his own preordained path.
“I truly believe, on a deep level, that everything happens exactly the way it’s supposed to in life,” says Willis. “Approaching this film, I thought it’s clear that this character was on the path he was supposed to be on. To be a doctor, as Paul Kersey is, you have to want to help people. And then, though it came from a tragedy, after his family is attacked, Kersey gets to where he is because he’s supposed to be there — one way or the other. And all of that was there in the script.”
Shue explains an early moment where her character, Lucy, gets a glimpse into the aggression her husband keeps a lid on. “There’s a scene where Paul and Lucy are watching their daughter Jordan play soccer, and there’s a belligerent man in the crowd who isn’t happy with what’s taking place on the field,” says Shue. “This guy gets angry and starts yelling, and Paul confronts him and says, ‘You need to calm down.’ They get into a tense moment where you see who Paul Kersey could become if he’s pushed too far. There’s a part of himself that he needs to control.”
Production Designer Paul Kirby’s job was to help put this inner metamorphosis into visual terms. “Paul Kersey has a good job and has his life and family environment in order,” says Kirby. “He’s done the right things. Then he unravels, and circumstances take him on a journey to another place.”
“He goes nuts,” says bluntly about Paul Kersey, who is the brother of D’Onfrio’s character, the bear-like, protective Frank Kersey. “There’s only one way back for Paul, and that’s to regain his sanity. It’s a genre film, and there’s this murky element to it that will raise questions. But you have to go into the deeper aspect of it, and think about whether or not what Paul’s doing is right.”
Willis views Paul Kersey’s transformation through the prism of parenthood, something the father of five understands well.
“Before I had kids, [being a father] wasn’t a part of these action films I do,” says Willis. “Now, it’s a major component. This film really makes you think about how far you will go to protect your family. After his own family is brutalized, Paul Kersey has zero tolerance for any bad guy to harm another innocent person. And we show the audience the underlying reasons why he does what he does.”
Knapp (The Nice Guys, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, TV’s Shots Fired, Seven Seconds) says that creating a memorable villain for Paul Kersey to go up against was crucial to the film.
“A key part of playing a villain is not seeing yourself in the mirror as a villain,” says Knapp of playing Knox, the thief and murderer who alters Kersey’s life. “But for Knox, it’s different. He looks in the mirror and this guy likes how bad he is.”
Knapp discussed the role in depth with Roth immediately after being cast. “Coming right off the page, the villainy in Knox is almost automatic, in his mannerisms or in the way he walks or talks or grins,” says Knapp. “Eli and I wanted to make a great character, like the kinds there were in the movies of the 1970s and ’80s, where they’re really standout evil dudes.”
Social media and technology provide an added layer to this modern version of Death Wish that heightens the immediacy of Kersey’s killings. With that current, contemporary element involved, it’s easy to see how the actions of the Grim Reaper could begin to rocket out of Kersey’s control.
“The carjacking goes viral because it turns out someone is filming it from a window,” explains Roth. “The video goes everywhere. Everyone can see this guy doing this. One interesting aspect of doing Death Wish today is that we really could show how these things go viral and everyone would instantly experience the moment pretty much as it’s happening.”
Morrone agrees with Roth that social media has changed how the world would view events like the ones in Death Wish. “The idea of a bystander recording the carjacking and uploading it really resonated with me,” says Morrone. “I grew up in the generation of social media, where everything is just a click away. That truly is the reality of my generation. We all now find things out through social media before we see it on the news.”
“Years ago, when something happened that was newsworthy, you had to wait to hear about it by reading the newspapers the next morning or by turning on the local evening news,” says Birnbaum. “But now, with social media so prevalent, it’s instantaneous. You have eyewitnesses to everything. That’s what happens in our story, and then there’s an enormous, extra amount of pressure brought to bear on the police to solve this crime.”
Norris says the impact of social media serves as a central motivator for the police to catch Kersey’s alter-ego. “We incorporate this new reality, and the fame and infamy it can bring,” says Norris. “The notoriety of the Grim Reaper gets spread via social media, which causes the detectives’ superiors to come down on us and say, ‘You need to catch this guy and put an end to this because it’ll start copycat killings.’ It becomes part of the motivating factor for the police to make sure they catch the Grim Reaper.”
“It does create a hindrance to Raines and Jackson because it causes the Grim Reaper situation, which would have been simply within the police department, to go public much faster,” adds Elise. “Before the detectives can even get back to the precinct, everyone knows what’s going on.”
Director Eli Roth
Few filmmakers have burst upon cinema’s genre consciousness like Eli Roth. When the Boston native made his first feature, 2002’s Cabin Fever, it was an homage-filled nod to classic horror thrillers with a postmodern pulse. Working from his own script and also serving as a producer on the film, Roth would go on to spark a unique career.
Three years later, Roth combined his twisted sense of style with his sly, sinister sense of terror to create Hostel. Practically spawning a genre of its own, the movie would have a sequel (also helmed by Roth) and become the kind of one-word-shorthand that guaranteed its status as a crucial demarcation in the gross-out universe of scary moviedom.
Roth then spent time enjoying tweaking the persona he’d built. He wrote and appeared in a spoof movie trailer (“Thanksgiving”) in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “retro double feature” Grindhouse, and costarred as “The Jew Bear” in Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated Inglourious Basterds. As a producer, he nurtured a new generation of genre filmmakers and fans with movies including 2001 Maniacs, The Last Exorcism, The Sacrament, and Clown, among others. As an actor, he popped up in the film adaptation of Broadway’s Rock of Ages, as well as in small roles in Piranha 3D, Aftershock and The Man with The Iron Fists. He followed that up with directing the cannibals-in-the-Amazon psych-out, The Green Inferno, and the psychosexual horror Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves.