America Loves a Vigilante. Until We Meet One.
Ann Hornaday does a great job on an opinion piece I wish I had written because the thoughts behind it have been rumbling around my brain a few years. We can each think of our favorite examples of vigilante films, of cops forced off the reservation by plot device, and of good guys who just have to be bad to defeat bad.
If you step back and think on your favorites, they almost without fail involve plot devices where the audience explicitly knows that the bad guy is the bad guy - but if Dirty Harry were a documentary instead, and if you didn’t know if the guy in the stadium was the perpetrator then would you be cheering as Dirty Harry shoots and tortures him?
The result is that Zimmerman might have indirectly had Goetz to thank for his own license to carry the Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol with which he shot and killed Martin. (For his part, Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and convicted only of illegal possession of a firearm.)
Back in 1984, some New York newspapers dubbed Goetz “The ‘Death Wish’ Gunman,” after Bronson’s architect-turned-urban-hero. This time around, though, we don’t have a ready-made cinematic vernacular for the vexing reality that has pierced the self-valorizing myth of vigilantism and facile assumptions about race and identity.
It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of the vigilante archetype, whose hard-charging moral certainty jibes perfectly with this country’s sense of exceptionalism, not to mention the narrative constraints of a 90-minute action movie. It’s far more difficult to reconcile complicated reality with the simplistic, comforting fictions we crave.
After all, contradictions don’t have easy character arcs. Mutual comprehension doesn’t lend itself to ballistic showdowns. Self-examination and second thoughts are notoriously un-telegenic. But as audiences look forward to another summer of vigilante derring-do, whether by way of Bruce Wayne or Ben Stiller, they may want to take a moment to remember George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and ask whether some of the stories we keep telling ourselves can ever really have a happy ending.