Joe (1970): When it comes to vigilante justice, the right gets all the fun. While Paul Kersey and Dirty Harry placate conservative wet dreams about shooting first and never asking questions, the left makes somber killjoys like The Ox-Bow Incident and In the Bedroom. At best, liberals offer satire. That was the intention behind this early Cannon Films cheapie, which stars Peter Boyle as a blue-collar racist/homophobe/bigot who goes on a hippie-killing spree—but not before partaking in their drugs and sex. But “Joe”-types didn’t get the joke: They turned the film into a surprise hit, much to the horror of Boyle, who subsequently turned down violent movie roles, including The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle.
Ms. 45 (1981): Abel Ferrara’s exploitation classic is a devastating Death Wish parody: After being raped twice in the same afternoon (!), a woman (Zöe Lund) turns into a nighttime stalker. But her targets aren’t creeps. They’re men. All men.
Fighting Back (1982): The late ’70s/early ’80s were a time when movie cities—if not always cities themselves—were crime- and gang-polluted Boschian hellscapes. From this emerged Lewis Teague’s what-if, in which a Philadelphia deli owner (Tom Skerritt) tries to take back the streets. Though easily read as mere vigilante fodder, it’s also easily read as a hilarious critique of same: Skerritt is a hothead who at one point roughs up a peaceful multi-ethnic bar, and the violent war he foments amounts to white Italians vs. black people and the poor. In the last scene, it’s suggested that what makes a vigilante isn’t societal concern. It’s a homicidal impulse.
Death Sentence (2007): Surprise: Brian Garfield’s novel, Death Wish, was an anti-vigilante tract. In response to the film that turned his work inside out, he penned this 1975 “sequel,” in which a father’s vengeful actions only make everything worse.
Saw VI (2009): In which Jigsaw targets the heartless staff of a health-insurance company. Thanks, Jigsaw!
God Bless America (2011): Though it’s more nuanced than it may appear (subtly characterizing our trigger-happy, far-right, pundit-killing anti-heroes as psycho hypocrites), kudos to surprise terrific filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait for making a vigilante movie that veers (mostly) left. So this is what it feels like to be right.
Bobcat Goldthwait—the star of ‘80s comedies he admits were terrible; the early ‘90s talk show saboteur who set fire to Jay Leno’s couch; the spastic comic who was (unfairly) lumped in with Andrew “Dice” Clay et al—has been reborn as a filmmaker, and a good one.
The two head out on a cross-country killing spree, taking pot-shots at Tea Party activists, a Bill O’Reilly clone and—most gratifyingly—people who talk during movies.