Critic's Notebook: The Moral Complexity of Today's Film and TV Vigilantes

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures; Netflix; Showtime
Frances McDormand in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,' Regina King in 'Seven Seconds' and Jason Mitchell in 'The Chi.'

Whereas yesterday's big- and small-screen vigilante stories were simplistic tales of white men getting even, recent movies and TV shows have revitalized the sub-genre by making the revenge-seekers female, African-American or both.

In the new Netflix series Seven Seconds, Regina King brings a sympathetic heroine to vivid life. Her character, Latrice, wants justice after her son becomes the victim of a hit-and-run caused and covered up by detectives. Convinced that the white policemen will never be held responsible for a black teenager's death, this kind-hearted, churchgoing, middle-class woman tells her brother-in-law, "I need you to get me a gun. I need to kill the man that killed my child."

The story of whether or not she goes through with it plays out over the next episodes of the show, and her moral dilemma echoes some of today's most compelling small- and big-screen works. The grieving mother in Oscar nominee Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is ready to kill a rapist, any rapist, to do what the justice system won't. The wife and mother in German film In the Fade chases down the terrorists who blew up her family, planting her own dirty bomb after they are acquitted of their crime. The upwardly mobile brother in Showtime's The Chi considers shooting the man who murdered his brother. They are all upstanding citizens who painfully and thoughtfully ask the same question: "Should I take the law into my own hands?"

The choices the new would-be vigilantes face are morally complex. These films and shows do not condone killing. Rather, they reflect deeply troubled societies in the U.S. and abroad, with systems of justice that seem increasingly broken. They also have high artistic ambitions, far from the macho vigilante movies of the 1970s and '80s, like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish flicks. In those ultraviolent genre films, fathers may have been seeking retribution for their dead families. They may even have been cops or former officers, as in Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry franchise or imitators like the Walking Tall series. But their backstories were flimsy excuses for the action of hunting villains. Each protagonist was a Lone Wolf acting as White Savior.

It's revealing, by contrast, that in these recent examples, the people so often grappling with issues of justice and revenge are black characters or women; they are the most likely to be shut out by a system designed by and for white men. One reason Eli Roth's new Death Wish remake arrives with such low expectations may be that the old movie's blithe acceptance of white-male vigilantism feels cheap and out of touch with the culture today.

Martin McDonagh's multilayered Three Billboards, on the other hand, couldn't be timelier. Mildred (Frances McDormand) puts up her police-shaming billboards as a last-ditch effort to get the officials to find whoever raped and killed her daughter. She does not have a knee-jerk attraction to violence; it's only after she has exhausted the system's possibilities that her actions escalate. She even teams up with Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a belligerent cop who later tries to trap the murderer, only to learn he got the wrong man. Together they decide — tentatively, it turns out — to go after that man anyway. "I know he isn't your rapist," Dixon tells her. "He's a rapist though."

The fact that Mildred goes so far toward vigilante retribution is more than a black-comedy trope. McDonagh makes it clear that Mildred, however exaggerated her behavior, is driven by a sense of frustration and helplessness, by her all-too-ordinary experience of an unjust world.

In Fatih Akin's eloquent, wrenching In the Fade, Diane Kruger is Katya, another bereaved parent, who at first puts her faith in the courts. The white supremacists whose bomb killed her Turkish-born husband and their son are clearly guilty, but the judge frees them due to lack of evidence. Planning an eye-for-an-eye response, she tracks them to Greece, plants her bomb, then takes it back and sits there thinking. Without any dialogue, we see torturous ethical and personal questions play out across Kruger's face.

Although many reviews have argued that Mildred and Katya want vengeance, these characters are only seeking justice in an intensely personal way. Katya is not after terrorists in general, just the killers of her family. Mildred reconsiders going after the other rapist.  Unlike Bronson-style crusaders, vigilante vengeance for them never becomes an end in itself.  

As In the Fade demonstrates, the question of vigilantism is not limited to American characters. But the idea of justice denied resonates with special power in American cities where race is part of the equation. In Seven Seconds, set in Jersey City, New Jersey, a black assistant district attorney and a white detective (Claire-Hope Ashitey and Michael Mosley) do their best to hold the hit-and-run driver accountable for murder. But the series' shifting points of view let us guess, as the dead boy's family does, that they will be no match for the blue wall of police protecting their own.

In this world, moral certainty is rarely as uncomplicated as it is for Latrice's husband (Russell Hornsby), who confronts the murderer and says, "I'd kill you myself, but then I'd be no better than you." For his wife and his brother, Seth (Zackary Momoh), the ethical decisions are tougher.

Seth, recently out of the Army and a former gang member, is torn between his present and the street life of his past. He goes to the police station and sits there with a hidden handgun, deciding what to do. Seven Seconds, created by Veena Sud, makes it clear that while Latrice and Seth would not be right to kill, they are certainly right to distrust a system that, as the white police characters indicate, is likely to dismiss black victims and their families.  

The Chi, Lena Waithe's gripping series set among black characters in Chicago, is particularly thoughtful about race, class and the consequences of street justice. The plot takes off when a high-school basketball star, Jason, is killed. His stepfather, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), asks around the neighborhood and is mistakenly told that a teenager named Coogie committed the murder. Ronnie shoots Coogie in cold blood, no questions asked — either of Coogie or his own conscience, which comes back to haunt him.

Coogie's brother, Brandon (Mudbound's Jason Mitchell), then faces his own moral decision. Brandon is the show's most obvious hero, an upwardly mobile young man training to be a chef. Yet he buys a gun and wonders whether to go after his brother's killer. His girlfriend (Tiffany Boone) reminds him, "This hood bullshit is not who you are," and tells him to go to the police. In response, Brandon echoes the very words of Jason's mother: "Cops ain't gonna do shit." That knowledge does not give him an answer, but it feeds into his difficult choice.  Using that gun would punish his brother's killer, but would it also ruin his own promising future? Would it drag him down to Ronnie's morally compromised level?

Among these newer vigilante films, the hero of Taylor Sheridan's recent Wind River makes the most radical decision. A wildlife tracker, Lambert (Jeremy Renner) helps the F.B.I. find the men who raped a young Native American woman and left her to walk barefoot through the snow until she died, a death that recalls the murder of his own teenage daughter. When he captures one of the admitted rapists, he leaves him barefoot and injured in the snow, certain to die the same way. It's a passive vigilante murder. Is Lambert still a hero? Does the fact that his ex-wife, the mother of his children, is Native American make him more attuned to that community's problems, or is he just another angry White Savior? The film throws that question back at the audience. But Sheridan ends the film with a title card that draws attention to how unequal the scales of justice are: "While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women."

In real life, few of us decide whether to kill a killer. But these characters tap into a profound issue swirling through the culture in a different form: How do marginalized people deal with a broken system that offers justice to white men above anyone else?