Since bursting onto the scene with his electrifying thriller "Saw" back in 2004, Australian director James Wan has solidified himself as one of the go-to guys for sheer, visceral chills. With a sharp sense of pacing and composition and a keen eye for talent, Wan has continued to expand his expertise with each new movie- whether it be the low-budget haunted-house story "Insidious", or indeed the massively budgeted action-extravaganza "Furious 7." But early in his near-fifteen year career, he unleashed a rather peculiar film that's quite unlike anything else he's ever done. A down-and-dirty, gritty tale of revenge entitled "Death Sentence", starring Kevin Bacon as a man pushed beyond his limits.
Based very loosely upon the second "Death Wish" novel, the film follows mild-mannered father Nick Hume (Bacon), whose athletically gifted son Brendan is killed almost ritualistically one night as part of a gang-initiation. Fearing that the courts will fail to bring true justice for his son's death, Nick instead opts to act outside of the law, and he strikes back and kills the man responsible for Brendan's death. What he cannot fully comprehend, however, is the ramifications of his actions. Soon, he finds himself a target of the gang, and must act to protect himself and his remaining family from the violent and volatile Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund)...
The fascinating thing about the film is the fact that it's far from a black-and-white matter, and Wan wisely treats everyone- including the villainous Darley- as full-fledged characters. There's many layers to the story, and it becomes a tale of evil begetting evil. A story of men driven to become monsters due to the circumstances of their lives- including some circumstances beyond their control. You might not identify with or even necessarily sympathize with Hume or the villainous figures of the story... and yet, you always have a degree of empathy for them, which gives the whole story an additional level of complexity that benefits it greatly. You can understand where everyone is coming from and why, and the real tragedy ultimately comes down to the fact that these are potentially good people taken down a dark path.
Bacon is an absolutely revelation in the film, and this is by far one of the most ambitious and risky performances of his career. He has so much ground to cover, and yet he accomplishes it with so much ease and gusto... further solidifying himself as one of the great underrated talents working in film. I also very much admired Hedlund's exquisite performance as Darley. A role he injects a great deal of pain and pathos into. It's a fine balancing act between agony and intimidation, and Hedlund pulls it off wonderfully. Supporting roles by the likes of Aisha Tyler, John Goodman and Kelly Preston are also very well cast and do their roles justice despite not always getting a great deal of screen-time.
Visually, the film is quite well-assembled, with Wan finally getting something of a bigger budget to work with and show off his skill. And there are indeed many stand-out sequences, including a brief but incredibly intense court-room battle of wills built around slow zooms that left me breathless. I also definitely have to bring up the film's famous single-shot chase scene, which is a logistical marvel to behold- as Nick is pursued throughout a parking garage in one unbroken take. Wan might not have been a master of his craft quite yet, but this is a stepping stone to greater things, and you can see hints of what he would eventually accomplish in future works.
The film does however have many glaring issues, which is where it loses a few points from me. While the camera-work is slick and stylish, I found the cinematography a bit too distracting in key moments- it filled with too much of that awful over-exposed, low- saturation early 2000's look. I'm sorry, I know it's gritty and all... but that type of image quality always looked cheap and tacky to me, and seems far too artificial. The film also outstays its welcome a bit too often in key scenes, and I can't help but feel a good ten minutes could have been cut out. Still, that can't diminish the fact that on the whole, "Death Sentence" is a solid, hard-hitting thriller that's worth checking out. With great themes and absolutely stunning performances, it's a bloody and distressing tale of revenge done right for the most part. And so, I give it a pretty good 7 out of 10.