Not All Movie Violence Is Created Equal

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Newtown may open a debate about killing in entertainment. But the best works of entertainment are already having that debate.

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The Weinstein Company / Film District / CBS Films

The tragedy that unfolded in Newtown last week likely can't be relegated to having a singular cause, and if it can, that cause certainly isn't a work of entertainment. Still, when a crime like this happens, people, quite understandably, start to question the culture it happened in. "America leads the world in massacres in life, and in film too," wrote Nick Thompson at The New Yorker this past weekend. "...It's time to talk about guns; but it's also time to talk about a lot more." Here at The Atlantic on Monday, Laura McKenna wrote that the shootings made her reconsider giving Halo 4, a shoot-'em-up video game, to her son for Christmas.

These pieces have been thoughtful and measured in their consideration of violence in art; we're a long ways away from the days when Marilyn Manson and Dungeons & Dragons were breathlessly blamed for making otherwise good people do unspeakable things. But even so, calls to open a conversation about mayhem in entertainment sometimes miss the crucial fact that that conversation is already taking place—within the entertainments themselves. Looking back at this past year in film, some very good, very violent films stand out as examples of how fiction provides a safe space to examine violence and mankind's inability to move past it.

We'll begin with Looper. The time-travel action flick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hitman from the future who learns the hard way about violence's long shadow. His job is to kill strangers—blindfolded men who are sent back from the future—but one day, he is tasked with whacking his future self. That's how the organized crime outfit that employs him erases evidence of its misdeeds, and writer/director Rian Johnson uses this set-up to explore the cyclical nature of violence.

But Johnson drops plenty of hints that his subject is not only violence itself but also the role that the movies play in perpetuating it. He includes references to Casablanca and the work of French New Wave master Jean Luc-Godard. The entire plot in fact is reminiscent of La Jetee, a classic film famously remade by Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys to revolve around a conspiracy to unleash a virus and destroy mankind; perhaps Johnson thinks the stakes are as large here. The arrangement between Joe and the mob—a clean kill, with no witnesses—resembles the relationship between a film and its audience. Many filmmakers profit from their use of violence, leaving someone else—the viewer—to deal with the fallout. Johnson's movie suggests it is time to reconsider the merits of that relationship.

Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths takes things a step further. It is the story of Marty, a screenwriter struggling to write a script called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths, and it would be confusing if it weren't so damn entertaining. Marty's central dilemma is that he wants to write a script about violent people, but he really wants to make it "life-affirming." McDonagh offers the audience manifestations of opposing viewpoints on movie violence in Marty's friend Billy Bickle (his last name is an homage to another film whose use of violence was endlessly debated, Taxi Driver) who seemingly exists only to create scenarios in which violence is inevitable, and his partner in canine-thievery Hans, a weary old con who wishes only to live out his golden years in peace.

In the third act, just when most crime movies would scrap the dialogue and begin an extended action sequence, Seven Psychopaths takes our heroes on a trip to the desert, where they try to finish the script together. They engage in a spirited debate on the merits of violent movies, which the film's relatively bloody finale does little to conclude. In the end, the film does not condone or condemn its own violence, but it is worth noting that, as we learn in a mid-credits sequence, Marty's life is spared only because he has been emotionally affected by what he witnesses. McDonagh believes that our recognition of movie violence's impact is enough for now.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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