Fatherly love and sibling rivalry
Story-wise, Death Sentence (2007) is just your typical vigilante action movie. The son is murdered by gangsters at a gas station and the father goes after his son’s killers. If you’re expecting any new twist or new ingredients added to this basic story, then this might disappoint. But this isn’t just another vigilante action movie; James Wan’s detour from the horror genre is a potent action-drama. There’s an airtight thrilling chase in a populated business area and parking garage and the movie’s third act boasts a number of impressive, stylishly crafted action set pieces — even if the last sequence borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Before the heartbreaking hospital scene at the end of the first act (which had me bawling like child, by the way) is a modestly effective set-up usually uncommon for a film of this sort: a portrait of a happy family—husband, wife, two boys—that’s not without its own little imperfections (there’s a brewing sibling rivalry, the firstborn was the father’s favorite). You somehow expect in advance that their happiness and all this are not going to last. And since you have these likable characters, the bond between them, you also fear for them because you know what’s coming — because that’s how it works in this kind of movies. Someone’s gonna die and someone’s going to avenge their death.
And so the couple never saw their son again. He died on the night he revealed to his dad that he wanted to go to Canada and play Hockey for the rest of his life. Father and son were on their way home and just came from a Hockey game. And his mama never get to him before he died in the hospital. And while the song used in that scene — an emo-pop track from Pilot Speed called “Alright” — took me a bit out of the movie, I thought the scene was powerful enough to be ruined by it.
Death broke every one of them, the father, the mother, the younger brother. When the father learns that there’s a slim chance the killer would stay in jail (there were no other witnesses, no CCTV), he decided to drop the charge and take matters into his own hands.
There’s nothing really new about all this but the movie managed to convincingly portray the father’s descent into the level of the people who perpetrated his son’s murder. The movie shows how stupid his decisions are, how ill-equipped he is against a bunch of criminals and how the people he’s dealing with have really nothing to lose compared to him. It also shows that killing someone isn’t as easy as some movies would like to tell you; it takes its toll mentally, physically, psychologically.
What ultimately made the movie for me, is the part where the father tries to patch things up with his younger son, revealing that he expected him to be like his older brother. And that when the younger son turned out to be not like his firstborn, he was kind of disappointed. And so the younger son gets less attention.
While older movies like this (e.g., Death Wish) can be read as advocating vigilantism, if you look past the stylish and action-overdriven third act, this movie’s undercurrent is no other than the stupidity of it. And there’s one joke in the movie to clearly illustrate that. There is this one scene where, the protagonist, while in his office, talks about risk assessment (he works for an insurance company). For someone who has a lot to lose, it’s the one thing he totally forgets before going after his son’s killer.