In 'Death Sentence,' No Method to Dad's Madness

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007

In "Death Sentence," Kevin Bacon may not be the baddest dad who ever cocked a shotgun in the name of his family, but he's the most insanely inscrutable.

Bacon, Hollywood's go-to heavy, can usually make the most loathsome characters -- including killers and child molesters -- seem poignantly human. But his thin-lipped intensity can't bring this character to life. As the central figure in a revenge thriller -- a man who goes ballistic when a thug kills his oldest son -- his Nick Hume is the wrong kind of enigma: the kind the writers haven't fully fleshed out.

The notion of a vigilante papa protecting kin with both barrels blazing could have made for dark cultural relief, after all the paternal milquetoasts we see in TV sitcoms and commercials. The saintly paragon dad is even de rigueur on the big screen, as Will Smith demonstrated in last year's "The Pursuit of Happyness." (Of course, we'll always have Homer Simpson, that boorish family head, to plunge us into the satirical depths of Father Knows Worst.)

But in trying to create a righteous monster we can (guiltlessly) root for, the filmmakers (including director James Wan, best known for the "Saw" movies) have neglected Nick's humanity. He starts off as a one-dimensional parent who engages in hackneyed chitchat around the dinner table with his wife (Kelly Preston) and sons (Jordan Garrett and Stuart Lafferty). Then, when the tragedy occurs, he becomes the equivalent of Robert De Niro's Mohawk-cut avenger in "Taxi Driver." Just like Travis Bickle in the 1976 classic, he locks and loads in front of the mirror -- although, mercifully, he stops short of revisiting De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" routine.

So why does a sweet-natured corporate drone and devoted husband and father shave his head and reach for the ammo? "Death Sentence," based on a novel by Brian Garfield (who, more than 30 years ago, also wrote that quintessential revenge fantasy "Death Wish") never really explains. Screenwriter Ian Jeffers offers token reasons for Nick's turnaround. It seems the perp who committed the crime did it casually, as part of an initiation into a gang, and the court system can offer only a light sentence. These factors might credibly motivate someone who's already emotionally unbalanced, who's just looking for an excuse to let loose. But Nick -- apparently -- is John Doe at lowest ebb. He exhibits no foreshadowing of the darker purpose soon to emerge.

The 2001 "In the Bedroom" followed a similar scenario, in which a father also takes drastic action in angry response to a lenient court system. But that film charts every moment of agonizing, self-doubt, guilt and heartbreak as he evolves from pent-up frustration to vengeance.

"Death Sentence" offers no such opportunity for our empathy. And without that essential dadness, Nick is just an abstract agent of aggression -- apparently oblivious to the repercussions it'll bring to the rest of his family. Blam! Down goes a bad guy, as Nick chases down a gang of head-shaven, tattooed hoodlums. Kapow! Another one hits the dirt. Even when Nick blows someone's lower leg off, we barely blink at the violence. After all, no one in this movie seems real -- or, at least, worth caring about. It's as if we're being forced to watch someone playing "Grand Theft Auto." And as we spend most of this movie watching Nick spiral ever deeper into psychotic meltdown hell, we dream of two magic words appearing on the screen: GAME OVER.

Death Sentence (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and profanity.

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