It should come as no surprise when movies dovetail with the wider social conversation. But this week, the collision is occurring with particularly crystallizing force.
To wit: The arrival of a Liam Neeson movie isn’t exactly news, although his new one, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” is notable on several counts. For one thing, it marks the return of Neeson to the kind of substantive, mature roles his fans have craved while he’s been making science-fiction fantasies and franchise installments. As New York detective Matt Scudder, Neeson settles easily into a role that calls for equal parts muscular brawn and soulful world-weariness.
But “A Walk Among the Tombstones” also pivots around a plot device that has become as troublesome as it is overused in Hollywood: an inciting incident of sexualized violence against a woman so heinous that it demands nothing short of a brutalizing rampage to avenge. It’s a trope trotted out with similar making-the-doughnuts roteness in “The Equalizer,” due out next Friday, in which Denzel Washington plays a freelance crime-fighter determined to bring rough justice to a group of thugs who have nearly beaten to death a teenage prostitute he recently befriended.
Like Neeson in “Tombstones,” Washington is at his strongest and most attractively sensitive in “The Equalizer”: Both actors have devoted female fans, increasing the potential that their latest outings will be the kind of “two-quadrant” movies — appealing to men and women alike — that the movie industry craves. (Prime example: the Neeson vehicle “Taken,” which became an unexpected hit thanks to the women who accounted for half its audience.)
If “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “The Equalizer” had been released at any other time, their depiction of violence against the young, vulnerable and female might not inspire more than a what-else-is-new shrug. But arriving alongside dismaying reports of the off-field behavior of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Dwyer and Greg Hardy, images and ideas so familiar in the cinema — and the fact that they’ve become so common — resonate with particular, unsettling clarity. The muddled response of individual teams and the National Football League, and the bizarre mixed messaging of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, are being reflected right up on screen, where movies continue to have an uneasily symbiotic relationship with violence, especially against women and children.
And that violence is perhaps most problematic, not because it’s such a cliche, but because of how it’s deployed as a narrative device: not to incite genuine offense, but as an aesthetic element in itself, allowing filmmakers to indulge their most luridly toxic fantasies while pretending to abhor them.
Damsels in distress have been a part of cinematic grammar since the medium’s invention, from Pearl White narrowly escaping certain death in the “Perils of Pauline” serials to the tried-and-true crowd-pleaser known as “woman in jep” (showbiz parlance for “woman in jeopardy”). But the genre took a radically darker turn in 1992, when the psycho-thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” won five Oscars, including best picture.
Suddenly a film in which the women-in-jep were being flayed alive — and the story’s wily, charismatic anti-hero was a cannibal, no less — left the confines of hoary melodrama or B-grade pulp and became respectable, glossed with the patina of awards-worthy seriousness. Soon, films from “Seven” and “Kiss the Girls” to “Sin City” and Neeson’s own “Taken” were upping the dubious ante on how gruesomely women could be raped, tortured, disfigured or otherwise degraded — with extra points if the victims were under 18.
Not only have the perils of Pauline become exponentially more perverted, pornographic and pervasive, they’ve become the lazy screenwriter’s go-to springboard to get the action underway, a sure-fire mechanism for recruiting the audience’s most base curiosities and giving the protagonist — usually male — crucial moral cover for spending the next hour and a half indulging in his own righteous brand of sadism and savagery.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “The Equalizer,” let it be noted, strive mightily for high-toned restraint and good taste: Both movies keep their vilest acts against women “tastefully” off-screen, submitting the audience to quick, lacerating glimpses of the horrors their writers have dreamed up. In “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” an early sequence starts out as a gauzy quasi-erotic fantasy, only to reveal that the blue-eyed blonde in question is gagged with duct tape, a single glycerin tear telling us all we need to know of the predations she’s suffering. In “The Equalizer,” a battery acid attack against a sweet girl played by Chloë Moretz is described, not shown; a later strangulation similarly occurs just out of the eye line.
In both cases, the oblique approach has the same effect, which is to invite viewers to conjure unspeakable behavior on their own, momentarily shifting the image from the screen in front of them to their own collective mind’s eye. Thus does Hollywood coyly perfect what it does best: having its cake and eating it too, making the most reprehensible violence part of its aesthetic and industrial practice, while keeping it arm’s-length enough to claim (barely) credible deniability.
Before people take to Twitter in high dudgeon, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that movies cause violence against women or encourage the abuse of children. What I am suggesting is that violence exists within a continuum of culturally sanctioned, ritualized aggression — from Sunday afternoon football games to Quentin Tarantino — that itself exists on a continuum, from the symbolic, cleansing and cathartic to the desensitizing, exploitative and profoundly hypocritical. As spectators, we occupy our own version of that continuum, one that starts with outrage and ends with visceral pleasure. It’s ludicrous to assume we can realistically address one without honestly confronting the other.
Within such a contradictory context, it’s no wonder that Goodell and his colleagues have been so dizzyingly incoherent in their responses to real-life violence this week. They’re simply reflecting — and inadvertently representing — the wider entertainment industry in which the suffering and mistreatment of women and children are part of the lexicon, whether as easy shorthand or sensationalized jolts. And they’re trying to decipher and anticipate the response of an audience that has delivered its own mixed messages about what we will accept, even expect, in the name of titillation and escape.
Consider: No sooner had women — a constituency the NFL has strenuously courted in recent years — begun questioning their loyalty to the organization with campaigns like the altered CoverGirl ad that went viral this week, than they also showed signs of being the first to forgive. As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg reported on Thursday, according to a Brand Index poll, women are expressing more positive feelings about the league than their male counterparts, and between last week and this week had bounced back from negative feelings far more quickly. While several observers called for an NFL boycott and at least one sponsor pulled out, the league has frantically hustled to shore up its fragile credibility with women — who represent 35 percent of its audience — with Goodell admitting on Friday that he “got it wrong” with his initial response and announcing a committee on player conduct standards that will include experts on domestic abuse.
Like football fans, female filmgoers have come into their own as a powerful constituency lately, helping to turn one-quadrant movies into two-quadrant hits, often at our own symbolic expense. Watching the NFL squirm under the female gaze, it’s tempting to wonder whether we women will ever have enough of watching ourselves and our daughters being routinely victimized for the sake of a plot point. Will Hollywood ever have cause to squirm? Maybe when resignation gives way to revulsion and, finally, steadfast refusal to watch — even if that means giving Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington a reluctant but meaningfully timed pass.