The New Vigilantes

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I recently saw Neil Jordan’s new film The Brave One, which stars Jodie Foster as a Erica Bain, a vigilante killer who cleans up the scum of NYC in revenge for the brutal murder of her husband by a couple of thugs in a park. It’s a very interesting film for a number of reasons—essentially a feminist retelling of Taxi Driver (which also starred Foster)—but its chief provocation is that it offers up a likeable protagonist who kills for pleasure, walking the streets at night in search of (male) sinners who need to be silenced.

Another incarnation of this amoral anti-hero is seen in the show Dexter (now on CBS). A sharply written and well-acted drama, Dexter follows a serial killer (the title character played by Michael C. Hall) who has an insatiable urge to kill those who kill others. He’s as likeable as any character on television and wouldn’t harm a hair on any principled, law-abiding citizen. But when it comes to rapists, pedophiles, murderers, and human traffickers, Dexter is as menacing as Jeffrey Dahmer. The show doesn’t condone or celebrate Dexter’s actions, but it definitely wants us to be on his side. To that end, it offers a “life is horribly complicated” backstory that attempts to explain (perhaps justify?) Dexter’s violent actions. Like Erica Bain, Dexter faced a violent past that made him who he is today: an unstable timebomb with a murderous axe to grind.

These are just two of the most recent examples of vigilante heroes in pop culture, which is just one subset of the much broader trend of moral ambiguity (the tendency of culture today to celebrate “the gray areas”). But none of this is especially novel or unique to the 21st century. I immediately think back to the novels of Dostoevsky that tackled these notions of DIY justice.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the idea that some men are of an “extraordinary” nature, set apart from, or rather above, the common man. The character of Porfiry interprets the idea in this way: “The ordinary must live in obedience…while the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law.” In the novel, this concept is embodied in the character of Raskolnikov, a neurotic, distressed student who kills a pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Like Porfiry, Raskolnikov believes that the extraordinary man has a right (not official, but his own) to “step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea—sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it.” For Raskolnikov, his murderous actions constitute the “stepping over” of an extraordinary man, for in the killing of the wretched pawnbroker many people—if not the whole of mankind—will be better off.

So goes the logic of both The Brave One and Dexter. In each case we find ourselves rooting on the murderous actions of these vigilantes because they are “taking out the trash” so to speak. The disturbing allure of these types of films (and TV shows) is that we all, secretly, enjoy seeing a bad guy get shot in the face or (in the case of Dexter, chopped into pieces and thrown in the trash).

But there is a frightful end sum to this type of vigilante amorality. In Crime and Punishment progresses, Raskolnikov begins to understand that in trying to rationalize his killing through some grand idea, he is deluding himself. He senses the dishonesty of it, and though it proves painful, admits to himself that: “I simply killed—killed for myself.” At the end of the novel (the “punishment” portion in Siberia), Raskolnikov imagines the true implications of the idea that had fueled his former torment. He has a disturbing vision of pestilence taking over the world and producing a race of men who each assume the right to step over and who each find the truth “in himself alone.”

This vision paints a scary portrait of a world governed by relativistic morality. Dostoevsky’s comments that in this world “they did not know whom to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good” prophesy the coming of postmodernism. Of course, the initial cultural manifestation of the “stepping over” idea seems to have been the rise in totalitarianism in the early-mid twentieth century, but Dostoevsky expresses a foresight of what would ultimately come in totalitarianism/modernism’s wake. Once one or two “extraordinary men” step over and take the reigns of a totalitarian authority, the natural outcome is that more and more people view themselves in the same way. Soon, because extraordinariness is so arbitrary and totalitarianism so distasteful, everyone claims the same rights to power and/or truth. Raskolnikov sees something of this future in his idea, and that is why he ultimately discounts it.

Does our culture today see the folly and contradiction that Raskolnikov finally does? Or are we once again romanced by the notion of “extraordinary” men and “above the law” morality? More broadly: is our emphasis on cultural specificity and relativism weakening our ability to even delineate where the “stepping over” lines are? It’s a question and pesky problem that deserves to be discussed.

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9 responses to “The New Vigilantes

  1. truthoncinema

    We also see this played out in the movie “There Will Be Blood” as Daniel Day-Lewis’ character does anything he can to improve his financial situation. I found myself at times sub-consciously agreeing with the means he used to obtain his worth because of how “larger than life” his personality was.

    He “took the law into his own hands” anyway he could in order to further gain more materialistic value. Yet, after the movie, I didn’t hate him, I wasn’t upset at the fact that he killed people, I actually felt sorry for him…why is that?

  2. Superb choice of subject matter!

  3. This is slightly off-topic (and it is a good choice of subject), but I don’t think it’s true that we all enjoy seeing the bad guy getting hurt. The fact that Dexter is being produced and shown (especially on network TV) both turns my stomach and makes me angry. I haven’t seen the show, but even the advertising, to me, is a glorification of murder that crosses the line.

  4. I don’t understand the comparison to Taxi Driver except in superficial terms. Schrader’s script is a portrait of self-imposed loneliness and masochistic social ineptitude: Travis Bickle is a character incapable of human connection, and whenever such seems about to occur, he sabotages it. The fact that his killing of his (imagined) enemies is praised in the media is portrayed ironically in the film, because we (the audience) know that had he succeeded in killing his enemies earlier, he would be known as a lone gunman-type assassin.

    Neil Jordan’s film is, as far as I can tell, a traditional revenge-fantasy story along the lines of Walking Tall or Death Sentence (to cite two recent examples) with some NPR discussion of the morality of vigilantism thrown in to give the film some street cred. Detective Mercer’s ultimate approval of Erica’s killing streak was, in my eyes, incredibly tragic and showed his own moral weakness, as it contrasted with what he’d said earlier regarding his ethical fortitude; the film seems to portray it as his realizing (positively!) that such abstract moral choices are ridiculous in the face of real-world scenarios.

    In other words, Taxi Driver is about vigilantism incidentally, and even then is at best ambivalent about it; The Brave One is about vigilantism necessarily, and comes down in favor of it.

  5. I love anti-heroes. It makes heroism seem more attainable if the good guys aren’t perfect.

  6. It’s been awhile since I watched Season 1 of Dexter, but, see, I don’t feel like the show necessarily wants you to feel like his actions are justified, or that you should be on his side. I think they do make him likeable, and even sympathetic to an extent, as they do give backstory to some of why he is what he is, but I don’t think that’s the same as condoning his actions. I don’t think Dexter himself even condones his actions, but he knows that his urge to kill will inevitably overpower his will, so he can either exercise some measure of control over the urge (i.e. killing people who “deserve” it) or let it go unchecked. I think that’s a big part of why I like the show–it’s not condoning murder by any means, it’s just looking at how the story of a psychopath with some semblance of a moral streak would play out.

  7. Dexter is a really good show. Some of the acting is a bit cheesy, but I think Michael Hall is great.

    The Brave One sucked…sorry…it wasn’t that good.

    Cheers.

  8. Great post. I agree that vigilantism is a very popular trend right now. Raskolnikov is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. Might I suggest that the next time you mention crime and punishment you work in the phrase “Dostoevskian moral dilemma”? It is so fun to say. Sometimes I write a post, just so I can work in the phrase “Dostoevskian moral dilemma”. lol

  9. Oh, and another good show about “the gray areas” and such is “Breaking Bad” on AMC. Some really challenging questions posed, and some truly great acting on the part of Bryan Cranston (the dad from malcom in the middle).

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