“Look What I Made You”: In Defense Of James Wan’s DEATH SENTENCE (2007)

death_sentence_ver2Mention James Wan’s name, and more times than not, the SAW or INSIDIOUS series will come up. Every once in a great while, a fan of the criminally underrated DEAD SILENCE will be brought up (and rightfully so, it’s wonderful), but for the most part, Wan’s fanbase tends to focus on the traps of SAW, the ghosts of INSIDIOUS or the frightening Warren experiences of THE CONJURING.  One film in Wan’s filmography that always seems to get the shaft in conversations or isn’t referred to much, is his loose adaption of Brian Garfield’s novel, Death Sentence. That film has always held a spot in my heart for many reasons, the writing, the music, the performances, and most of all, the morality tales and lessons that though are not subtle whatsoever, speak volumes about how far we can get from who we are, while trying to “protect what’s ours”.

*PS- If you have not seen the film, you might want to do so before reading this, as it is VERY spoiler-heavy (as in the entire plot). 

Telling the tale of Nicholas Hume, an executive with a good life, a loving wife, an up and coming hockey-playing son destined to be recruited, and a younger son that feels somewhat left out of the family dynamic due to just not fitting in. When Nicholas takes his eldest son, Brendan to his hockey game, he makes the mistake of flashing his car lights to a couple of speeding cars on the other side of the road. When Hume realizes his car needs gas, he pulls up to a nearby gas station, and while he gets gas, his son Brendan heads inside to get something to drink. Not even a minute later, the cars Nicholas had flashed pull up, and seemingly rob the gas station, shooting the clerk, before the gang’s leader tells a nervous younger member “This is your guy”, pressuring him into using a machete to slice open the neck of Brendan. As he sees this, Nicholas runs towards the gas station, and is accidentally hit by a car, injuring him for a second, and the gang leaves the young murdering gang member behind, who also gets hit by a car, but not before Nicholas sees his face. Brendan is taken to the hospital, where not long after Nicholas’s wife and younger son arrives, Brendan dies from his wounds. As a viewer, we’re already knee-deep in recalling the first time we lost someone, whether it be to death, or just losing them in general. Wan’s ability to create moods and get his viewer ready for the ante to be upped has always been an exceptional talent of his, and this setup is no exception.

As his family does their best to continue their lives without Brendan (Nicholas’s wife cries in bed, referring to the high school football team wanting to pay tribute to Brendan, being that he would have played the game, had he not been murdered). Lucas, the younger son, feels even less like a member, with his mother and father accidentally treating him the same way that Gordy’s parents treated him in STAND BY ME, cold, almost distant.

When Nicholas talks to a detective assigned to the case, as well as the prosecuting attorney, he is informed that Joe Darley, the thug who had murdered Brendan, won’t probably serve much time, even with Nicholas testifying, so Nicholas does something that seems like the best idea at first, but ends up being a decision that affects not only himself, but his family and everything he had built with his life. Nicholas changes his statement and says that he doesn’t recognize Joe Darley, allowing Joe to walk free, and as Nicholas watched Darley leaves court, Joe is picked up by the gang, led by the tough as nails and abrasive Billy. Nicholas follows Joe to where the gang drops him off at, drives home, gets a knife and drives back to where Joe is. They get into a fight, and accidentally, Nicholas stabs Joe to death. We instantly see the regret sweep over Nicholas’s face. He’s not a killer. He’s a family man, a loving husband, father and bread-winner. He washes the knife off, panics, and gets rid of the weapon. Unbeknownst to him though, he was seen by a prostitute working where Nicholas accidentally stabbed Joe.

Nicholas goes home, takes a shower, and collapses in the shower, realizing that not only did he murder someone, but the fact that doing so didn’t bring Brendan back, or fill that void that was left by the loss of his son. Nicholas tries to go on, going to work the next day and being visited by the detective assigned to the case again (a great Aisha Tyler) to inform Nicholas that Joe Darley was murdered, and as she leaves, she notices Nicholas’s hand being bandaged up.

Angry about the death of Joe, Billy and his gang find out from the prostitute who had seen Nicholas where Joe was killed, leading to the gang chasing Nicholas through the streets in plain day, shooting at him, and like the gang in John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, they don’t care about what happens to them, whether they’re caught, shot, or stopped. They’re on a specific mission: to exact revenge, just as Nicholas was on Joe. Through this chase, we’re given one EXPERTLY crafted chase scene, with a car parking structure sequence that STILL blows my mind each time. At the end of the parking structure showdown, another member of Billy’s gang is killed, but Nicholas accidentally leaves his briefcase behind. Returning the briefcase to Nicholas’s work the next day, one of the gang members tells Nicholas, “This is your freedom…freedom from know how you’re going to die”. Nicholas opens the briefcase and see a family portrait, with X’s marked on each member’s face, and a phone number on the back. Nicholas calls it, and on the other end, is Billy. After trading verbal blows back and forth, Nicholas tells Billy: “You listen to me. You go near my family, and I will cut out your goddamn guts like I did your fucking friend. Do you hear me?“, to which Billy reveals that Joe wasn’t his friend, but his younger brother. Billy also informs Nicholas that he’s earned his whole family a “Death Sentence”.

Soon after, later that evening, Billy and his gang attack Nicholas’s home, killing two cops assigned to watch over them. After a fight, Nicholas falls down stairs, is injured and witnesses Billy and his gang executing his wife and shooting his only remaining son in the head, before shooting Nicholas. More blood shed in the name of revenge.

Upon waking up from a coma, Nicholas, visits his semi-comatose son and emotionally tells him how he just never knew how to be a good father to him because of how different he was from Brendan. Before he leaves the room, Nicholas tells Lucas that he loves him, and does what he and the Darley gang have both done back and forth throughout the entire film: decides to go after the rest of them. Nicholas takes out all of his savings, buys a large amount of guns (from a crooked dealer/gun seller played by John Goodman and who happens to be the father to Billy and Joe Darley, yet isn’t concerned with their lives), shaves his head and puts on his dead son’s leather jacket.

Nicholas invades an abandoned hospital that now serves as a meth-lab ran by Billy, and as viewers, we’re exposed to a vicious and extremely violent showdown, full of Nicholas using handguns, shotguns, and everything else at his disposal to dispatch of the remaining members of Billy’s gang. When Nicholas reaches the abandon hospital’s chapel, there is a three-way gunfight between a thug of Billy’s, Nicholas, and with Billy. Nicholas is shot in the neck, Billy is shot multiple times, including losing a few fingers in the process and the other thug is murdered.

Nicholas sits down, holding the bleeding wound on his neck. Billy walks up, bleeding to death, and sits next to Nicholas. “Look What I Made You”, he says, before Nicholas pulls out a large gun and asks Billy if Billy is ready to meet his fate. We don’t see Nicholas kill Billy, but we know he does. Nicholas walks out of the hospital, still bleeding. He drives home, breaks the police tape, and sits on the living room couch, watching a family video of when he had his entire family, before the death of his son set off a chain of events that in turn made Nicholas not only lose his entire family due to his thirst of vengeance and thinking it would fill the hole left by Brendan’s death. As the police show up at Nicholas’s house, Aisha Tyler’s detective character informs Nicholas that Lucas is going to pull through, and with that, Nicholas lets go of his neck wound, and as his family video plays, dies.

DEATH SENTENCE came out in the fall of 2007, when audiences were paying their hard earned money watching young Michel Myers being a kiss fan with long hair and pouting over not trick r treating. Marketing as more of a straight up action film, audiences just didn’t respond very well, and it’s a shame, because the themes of the film I’ve always felt are important ones. How many times in life, do we feel wronged, in everything from friendships, to relationships, marriages, business partners, former friends, etc. How often do we think that getting back at said individual will fill whatever pain or misery that you’re going through, and in reality, how often does it actually fill the holes and voids? Never. We’re so concerned in the way we’re treated that we as people have such a blood lust in general, that the idea of getting back at whatever person did you wrong seems like it’s the thing to do, and it’s a proven fact, that the only thing that comes from that is a calloused heart, and a temporary feeling of relief. Sometimes in life, though we don’t want to, or shouldn’t HAVE to, we must simply realize that life happens and we lose things, ideas, or people in one way, shape or form, and there isn’t any “balancing the scales”, there is only life, and the way we live it.

If it had reached an audience that latched onto the ideas and themes that it so perfectly executed and illustrated, I could see DEATH SENTENCE being an important morality tale that people would still be talking about a full eight years later. It’s a heartbreaking yet profound action/thriller/drama that instead of just relying on action set pieces nonstop, tells a story or a man’s blood-lust eventually destroys the life he has left.

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