In Defense Of: “Death Sentence” (2007)

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This article will contain spoilers for the film.

Ever since directing the original Saw back in 2004, James Wan’s career has only continued to skyrocket. Say what you will about the franchise that his debut spawned, but the original film – in all its low budget simplicity – was the work of someone with potential and, better yet, the talent to see that potential through. In the years since, his name has become synonymous with modern horror, spinning two further franchises into gold with Insidious and The Conjuring, and while he’s also helped guide Furious 7 through its troubled production and is helming next year’s Aquaman, fans of Wan will always look forward to seeing him return to his horror roots.

But while the director has seen success after success over the years, there’s one year in particular that always seems to get overlooked: 2007. It was then that Wan followed up Saw with not one but two films, the spook show Dead Silence and the small-scale action piece Death Sentence, both of which failed to live up to the critical acclaim and financial success of his debut effort and were overshadowed by his fourth outing behind the camera, the original Insidious. For the most part, 2007 is the year in his career that it seems we’re not really supposed to talk about, but I would argue that – putting Dead Silence aside for the moment – Death Sentence deserves a bit of a re-evaluation now that nearly a decade has gone by since its release and the dust has settled.

If you’ve never seen the film, or in case it’s been a while, here’s a crash course on its plot: Kevin Bacon plays Nick, the patriarch of the Hume family, which consists of Nick’s loving wife, Helen, their youngest son, Luke, and their oldest son, Brendan, the family’s golden boy. While on their way home one night after one of Brendan’s hockey games, Nick and Brendan stop at a gas station, with fate putting them directly in the path of a gang initiation led by Garrett Hedlund’s Billy Darley, whose youngest brother, Joe, kills Brendan to earn his place in the gang. Though Nick is able to identify Joe to the police and a murder case goes to trial, justice fails. Joe walks and Nick decides to take matters into his own hands by balancing the karmic scales.

Now, before I go further, I’ll say right off the bat that Death Sentence is far from a perfect film. Ten years of age under its belt and being able to see how Wan’s directorial skills and personal style has developed ever since makes revisiting the film nowadays an illuminating experience, one that exposes how rough it truly is around the edges. Charlie Clouser’s score, for instance, does the movie no favors, the composer meshing his industrial work from the Saw series with melodramatic substance that just rings false, the hybrid often throwing the tone of the film off for sticking out like a sore thumb rather than simply complementing what’s on screen. And many of the supporting characters, whether they be Kelly Preston’s Lifetime Movie wife, Hedlund’s tough-talking gang leader, or Aisha Tyler’s frowny Detective Wallis, are walking tropes instead of fully-realized people, regrettably saddled with stiff, often cliché-ridden dialogue.

That said, it’s also really not their movie to own, and though John Goodman is able to steal it a bit in a very small role, Kevin Bacon single-handedly elevates the flick, carrying the dramatic load to admirable effect. Had the overall film itself been better, Bacon’s performance would likely be remembered more fondly, but what he does here is solid work anyway, doing his best to sell Nick’s journey from loving family man to tortured, grieving father to reckless machine.

Home videos at the beginning of the film show him happy, bright colors and warmth serving to create his own perfect heaven; by the end, however, he’s quite literally traveling down the appropriately-named Stygian Street and into a dark, grimy, and abandoned hospital with graffiti that reads “Welcome to Hell” looming over him as he wages his one-man war against Darley’s gang. It’s a bit on the nose, sure, but Bacon sells it anyway, culminating in a final moment where he’s back home, quietly resigned to bleeding out on his couch, and watching his home videos, unable to return to his own personal heaven.

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