Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund, Aisha Tyler, and John Goodman
After Saw was a success in 2004, director James Wan was in a position to do what he wanted. Then, 2007 rolled around and he went back to horror, reteaming with writer Leigh Wannell with the underrated Dead Silence. Followed by another little film that was made as an homage to films like Taxi Driver, from a book by Brian Garfield, the same writer of the novel Death Wish the film was based on. Could this director of horror up, which was all he had shown he could do, make a successful transition to the gritty drama, with the best cast he had up to that point doing his bidding?
The answer is definitely a gray area. First of all, the film looks great. The colors and pallet that Wan gives the movie, including scenes of red light overriding black backgrounds, sets a great tone. It definitely gives the film a sense of dread, yet not an overwhelming one like the Saw films. It is a style that he has not yet necessarily perfected, but is on the brink of doing. I loved the look and overall aesthetic of this film. For example, the place that the gang of thugs (led by Hedlund) is staying literally looks like it came directly out of Saw. And, it fit well here. Also, casting against type was a genius move. As, both Bacon and Goodman come in here as guys who you just don’t want to mess with. Goodman especially, with his tattoos and hate spewing grumbles made me want to stand as far away from him as possible. Bacon, as always, is great. When his son is killed, he shows emotions, with shakiness in speech and everything, when a father is handed this loss. In fact, the whole first half hour is brilliantly written, acted, and directed. With the inclusion of Saw composer Charlie Clouser’s haunting themes, the film is moved along pretty nicely in this first half. It was nice seeing an actor like Bacon bring this type of protagonist to the screen.Hedlund, with his head shaved and tattoos sprinkled on his body, is also great. He is a tortured soul, and plot points that show what he is going through as well put an interesting dimension on the story. As he would go on to be the hero of Tron Legacy, Hedlund shows that he also can play against type.
As good as Bacon is in the beginning, it is when his character of Nick Hume starts realizing what he is doing when he excels. You feel each subsequent kill he does (at least in the beginning) and the debate from which his mind is going through also hits him. Especially in a powerful scene of him crying in the shower, and Preston comforting him, thinking that the outburst was due to lingering effects of his son’s loss. Little does she know it’s much more than that. And, once again, the aura of dread lingers in the film, thanks not only to the acting of all involved, but also to the direction of Wan and the screenwriting of Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. However, it is during a parking garage chase, which is suspenseful to a point but goes on way too long, that the film starts to run out of steam. And, sadly, it just never recovers, as the end of the movie is just Hume exacting his revenge in a non suspenseful way. Although I did like the touch of Hume not being able to fully shave his head, leaving some strands of hair and making it look even more authentic.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Death Sentence to anyone looking for a gritty, in your face thriller. While the closing fights definitely left a lot to be desired, the agony that comes with witnessing the murder of your own son and to which point Hume goes nuts with revenge is very nicely done. Tyler is good as the cop who starts figuring out what Hume is doing (even though she disappears from the story a bit too much for my liking). Wan shows with this movie that trap or no trap, horror or no horror, he can stage suspense really well. Even though he is sometimes a little too slick for his own good (there’s a shaky, distorted dream in the hospital near the end that frankly should have been cut out). However, the grittiness and overall feeling of anguish for Hume’s character and what he was doing really set in for me. Proof that, when given the right script, Wan could show an even bigger range. A range that, quite frankly, has the potential to show just how scary good he is.
3.5 out of 5