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I've Seen All That I Need to Unsee

Epic bloodbaths used to be enough. Now we've amped up the violence (e.g., "The Equalizer") and paired it with conscience-free protagonists (e.g., Hannibal). Where is this all headed?
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I wanted to see Gone Girl. We were going to see Gone Girl. But we got to the theater five minutes late, and my husband has an irrational aversion to accepting that a movie’s actual start time is 20 minutes after the listed one, owing to previews and advertisements. (This might also be described as a rational aversion to accepting my chronic lateness, but never mind that.) Point is, we had to pick another movie, and when he described The Equalizer as an “action movie with Denzel,” I said okay.

I have a bad habit of falling for those words. I generally like action movies—good guys besting bad guys, cat-and-mouse games between flawed protagonists and clever villains, exciting chases, amazingly choreographed fights and explosions—as long as I shut down my feminist brain for a couple of hours. And I generally like Denzel Washington, period. But sometimes, an action movie is so grotesquely violent and bereft of characters worth rooting for, even his copious charm and talent can’t win me over.

I couldn’t stand 2001’s Training Day, for example—which, I realized seconds after The Equalizer’s credits began, was by the same director. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on my husband and Antoine Fuqua.

It’s safe to say I’m not a Fuqua fan; I hated Brooklyn’s Finest for the same reason, and Olympus Has Fallen for that reason again, plus excessive silliness without the self-consciousness that would qualify it as camp. There are moments of that in The Equalizer, too, the plot of which amounts to Die Hard: Home Depot. I actually started giggling during a climactic scene where Washington faces down an enemy while the building store’s sprinkler system is going full-bore, mimicking pouring rain. It’s all slow-mo and sodden steely gazes between them for so long, my brain eventually began to process it as parody. Antoine Fuqua films, in my experience, are not so much about good vs. evil as big swinging dick vs. bigger, swinging-er dick.

But since The Equalizer contains no full-frontal nudity (again, I voted for Gone Girl), the protagonist’s mettle is demonstrated by his ability to remain calm while wasting half a dozen other guys in 30 seconds, using guns, knives, and corkscrews.

If it were even just a matter of excessive gore—briefly showing a man’s face post-corkscrewing, for instance—it would be, for better or worse, a measure of horror I’m well acclimated to within the action genre. You can always close your eyes when you know they’re about to show something you can’t unsee (like said corkscrew going in through the man’s neck and out his mouth). But as I learned while watching The Equalizer, you can’t close your ears to the sickening sound of a man’s face being stomped and punched a dozen or more times, even when you’ve decided after the first two or three that it’s time to stop looking.

And if that kind of violence were restricted to the work of a single director, the solution for those of us who can’t handle it would be both simple and obvious: Don’t watch. But for as much as I’m picking on Antoine Fuqua, next-level brutality and carnage keeps showing up not just in a high number of recent cinematic thrillers but on television. Network television.

If you don’t have HBO to watch True Detective, you can get your fill of antler-impaled, naked dead women (not to mention a homemade Bodies: The Exhibition) on NBC’s Hannibal.  When Fox’s The Following debuted, I was quite intrigued by the premise—an imprisoned murderer and cult leader manipulates disciples to kill for him on the outside—but I couldn’t make it past the part where a woman takes off all her clothes and stabs herself in the eye with an ice pick. (One thing I’ll give Fuqua: None of the many, many bodies in The Equalizer is a naked, blood-soaked woman styled to titillate even as it horrifies.)

The graphic imagery on CBS’s long-running Criminal Minds drove star Mandy Patinkin away—to the more quietly violent Homeland. “You cannot prove that that individual in Aurora, Colorado, was not in some way influenced by some images he had seen somewhere along the line,” Patinkin told The Telegraph in 2012, referring to movie theater mass killer James Holmes. “He didn’t learn it in a vacuum; he saw it.”

I don’t know that I’d go that far, and in any case, I’m not interested in fretting about Our Children and their exposure to violence just now. But I empathize with Patinkin when he says that being involved in such a gratuitously violent show “hurt [his] soul.” Forget our children—what is all of this casual savagery doing to us?

And why do we keep accepting it? Is there a point at which audiences will finally lose their stomach for graphic depictions of boots bearing down on human faces, flesh tearing apart, viscera spilling out of still-warm bodies, ice picks in eyeballs and young women displayed like the hunting trophies that ran through their vital organs? If writers and directors keep trying to top the last offering, where does it end? Will it be before actors actually start beating the shit out of each other for gritty verisimilitude?

I admit I can forgive a lot if the storytelling is otherwise entertaining. I binge-watched the first season of Hannibal (dare I say it) hungrily, and I loved True Detective as much as anyone for those first few episodes, before it became clear that the story’s conclusion wouldn’t remotely live up to its early promise. On the soapier side, I sat through one main character torturing another—a woman, naked, again—with dental pliers on Scandal. Hell, in 2010, I wrote an incredibly long defense of Hit Girl, the 11-year-old assassin character who made me enjoy an ultra-violent movie that’s mostly about a whiny teenage boy who gets in over his head. So the exceptional sense of horror I feel watching the sort of violence in The Following and The Equalizer is surely in part because the characters and plot aren’t interesting enough to distract me. 

But I also have an uneasy feeling that this new-and-improved bloodlust is a natural extension of our recent cultural fascination with conscience-free protagonists, which Laura Bogart discussed in Dame on Monday. In The Equalizer, one character describes the antagonist as “a sociopath with a business card,” but the same could as easily be said of Washington’s “good guy.” His assassin skills come courtesy of the U.S. government, and he only uses them on people who do terrible things, but still, we’re rooting for the corkscrew-wielder. A man who has no close friends, no notable character traits apart from extreme discipline, and no hobbies besides reading 100 classic novels as a tribute to his dead wife and murdering people who wrong his favorite acquaintances, Underage Hooker With a Heart of Gold and Fat Guy Who Just Needs to Believe in Himself.

“The plot is literally,” I said to my husband on our way out of the movie theater, “‘Here is a guy, and here he is killing people.’ I mean, I know it’s an action movie, but it doesn’t even go a hair deeper than that!” 

“You’re surprised by this?” he asked.

I was, honestly. Just as I was surprised by the ice pick and dental pliers and preserved human slices on network TV, and the overtly sexualized corpses on HBO. Usually, there is something genuinely likeable about a “good guy” character who happens to kill a bunch of people—James Bond is devastatingly suave; John McClane is an endearing smartass—to distance the audience from the horror of his actions. Usually, we’re led to believe that this is an interesting, complex man, capable of a full range of human emotions and having a really fucking bad day. (In The Equalizer, one “Pip” turn and a line from the child sex worker about his sad eyes are meant to stand in for all that.) But in an era when literature’s most beloved detective is reimagined as a “high-functioning sociopath“ and Breaking Bad fans just wanted that awful Skyler and her pesky conscience to get out of Walter’s self-obsessed, murderous way, I really shouldn’t be surprised, should I?

Can it be a coincidence that images of extreme, often deadly violence have been increasingly stylized and fetishized at the same time our cultural love affair with the sociopathic antihero was heating up? That our fondness for male protagonists who treat everyone around them terribly—even if they stop short of killing—has grown alongside our increased tolerance for physical brutality, and vice versa? Should anyone be surprised that these twin loves would devolve into a $34 million opening weekend for “Here is a guy, and here he is killing people”?

None of us should be, but I hope it’s not just me who is. Being shocked by it means we’re not yet desensitized—which means maybe we’re not actually speeding headlong toward mainstream snuff films.

 

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Kate Harding is co-author of "The Book of Jezebel" and "Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere," and author of the forthcoming "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It." Find her on Twitter @kateharding.
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