Vigilante, from the Spanish term meaning ‘watchman’, is a phrase that has been popularised with success and infamy over the past few decades. In the second half of the 20th Century the concept of the vigilante metamorphosed into popular culture in a spectacular way; the adornment of the media with new age vigilante icons made the vindication of fictionally illicit characters possible.
In its legal basis, vigilantism is without defence, albeit one that is applicable in statute. The second objective of the law, besides punishing crimes, is to prohibit justice that circulates outside the fundamental exercises of controlled court proceedings, in effect disabling the use of personal or private justice, thus vilifying anyone who takes the law into their own hands. The evolution of law-making has been gradual and in the West it is perceived as being at its furthest development yet. In our cultures countries are considered nations of law. This implies that the citizens are governed by the laws their government advocates and not by their transient moral impulses – the laws are built to last and maintain the state of a democracy.
In this sense it is widely acknowledged that there is no need for extralegal measures to be taken if a criminal act is perpetrated. Logically once you have vetoed a law that guarantees a comparative punishment for a criminal act you should be in a position where the job of jerking the justice chain can be done at a secure level without your own admittances or objections coming into play. But throughout human social history there has always been a dubiousness attached to the outcome of the legal pursuit of justice. People who are made victims may sometimes deem the punishment established by law insufficient for their own purposes. The man who loses his daughter because of drugs is not permitted to identify, in his own mind, the person who supplied his offspring with the deadly substance and mete out his own brand of justice derived from a vendetta. At a visceral level, the desire for revenge is espoused with the nature of territoriality – you piss on my tree, I’ll piss on yours; you kill my child, I’ll kill yours.
Revenge is vicious. It is also the cog that drives vigilantism in most cases. This idea of knighting oneself as the arbiter of justice is essentially crude and bestial in a democracy. So why are middle-class audiences in the West so enthralled by its depiction in the media?
To make answering this question easier it is crucial to first look at the condition of the current middle-class before putting the representations of vigilante justice under the microscope. Society today is still in its progression towards what might be envisioned as a utopian zenith where everyone is equal, which would dethrone justice and its legal agents. In the contemporary picture there is still a range of problems that require a system to sort them out. In the richer countries we rely on the courts, our chambers of justice, to do the necessary filing of these problems into categories that can’t be argued with. So on the face of things it would appear we can escape the ties to justice that might otherwise constrict our day-to-day commitments. But there is one major flaw in this system of deference. To the victims of a crime – an infringement on their territory – the punishment is intangible, out of their control – not to be touched. If you capture an infant bear in the wild its mother will stop at nothing to rescue its baby; you will die if that bear gets its paws on you. This aspect of territoriality translates into human behaviour nicely, except the individual person faces a barrier to rescue or revenge. That barrier is the law. This is when your average, civilised 40-something father submits to a vengeful rage after the loss of his daughter, or a frightened shop owner purchases a gun to prepare for the next time his harassers return to vandalise his property.
This analysis of vigilante justice reveals a less systematised, more animal response to acts of a criminal nature brought upon innocent people. It is this form of vigilantism that is embodied by the middle-class icons we see prowling their territory, gun in hand on the big screen. It’s the struggle of the little guy against the confinement of justice to forces outside of their instinctive control, a return to the personal vendettas that the laws of a democracy prohibit. And audiences revel in it. They not only gasp and wriggle as the murderer feels the sting of their own tail, they adore the rogue citizen who audaciously puts their finger up at the law. These rogues are fewer in number than the gallant heroes who emancipate the innocent and the malicious tyrants who prey on the weak, and oddly enough they portray mixed characteristics borrowed from protagonists and antagonists alike. Nevertheless, they are hugely significant symbols in cinematic history, ones whose vengeful possession towers mightily above the predictable black and white scenarios of heroism and evil we are raised on.
These ambassadors of vigilantism mark the slate of cinema like turbulent tributaries that diverge from the conventional stream of stories. Travis Bickle, wannabe assassinator of Martin Scorsese’s gritty exploration into New York’s seedy underbelly, Taxi Driver, is impossible to forgo in the discussion of cinema’s most famous vigilantes. His disillusionment about society on his doorstep is central to his mission to save a teenage Jodie Foster from the stranglehold of depravity that she has found herself in as one of the story’s innocents. Perhaps in nostalgic reference to her debut role, Foster recently wound up equipping herself with the vigilante kit in The Brave One, though I haven’t yet seen it. It will be interesting to see how a female vigilante manages to exact her revenge in a genre that is frequently dominated by the bravado and resilience of male characters. I believe Thelma and Louise would have a bone to pick with me about that comment.
In a strange brotherhood of vengeance, we have seen two stellar legends, Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Michael Cane in Harry Brown, separately seeking justice in their neighbourhoods after those close to them suffer from the erosion of social norms by a virus carried by violent thugs who denote total moral apathy. What’s most compelling about Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski and Cane’s Harry Brown, more so than the initial amazement of these two greats being written into very equal roles, is the elderly element. These transatlantic vigilante brothers are identifiable immediately by their old age, middle-class status and, most importantly, their recent bereavement. With their enduring wives out of the picture, they begin to perceive the real drama the resonates in their world, and following catalysts of suffering they awaken instincts of personal justice to rectify the deplorable circumstances of their world’s status quo. Here the vigilantism broadens to encompass not just one man’s personal war on wrong but also the frustrations of a generation who fear for their moral values and the homes they built for themselves.
At first it seems negligible that the majority of these iconic vigilantes should have military experience – perhaps a compulsory criterion given the tactics required to kill and not easily be killed, especially if the vigilante is a pensioner. But dig a little deeper into the instincts of the audience and this simple enabling device dictates more than just a character’s arch. The distance between the average middle-class citizen and tangible justice is lessened in theory once they have previously been immersed in the art of the kill, i.e. undergone training to be a soldier. The audience watching these vigilantes recognises the status of a soldier and this recognition increases the likelihood of these AWOL citizens succeeding in their crusade, thus restoring the audience’s faith in the character. This key component to the background of your classic anti-hero might also act as a counterpoise to the desires of ordinary people who could in all probability emulate these icons. It is telling us that lawlessness has consequences, consequences you better be ready to deal with. Seeing as vigilantes work outside the judicial system when administering justice they are criminals by default, willing to abort their obligation to the law in favour of a personal cause that may well signal their demise alongside redemption.
In some films the catalyst for retribution is more imaginative than the obvious social syndromes we mostly know of. A film entitled Red stars Brian Cox as a widower whose only reason to live is the faithful dog his wife bought for him on the anniversary before her death. His dog, Red, is killed by the son of a callous man, both of whom eventually feel the bitter wrath of a man very much alone. In Leon Jean Reno plays a cold, calculating assassin who is won over by the love of a young girl. Leon takes it unto himself to deal a levelling blow to the corrupt policemen who robbed the girl of her family and innocence. One of Dustin Hoffman’s darker performances in Straw Dogs depicts him as a quiet mathematician in the English countryside who is driven to murder when his property and life are threatened by the mindless violence of the local ruffians. The versatility of the subject of revenge as demonstrated by vigilante anti-heroes is often tortuous for us because we want to believe in these lonely men and women who are merely fighting for what they value and love. The examination of vigilante motives outweighs that of murderers because vigilantes are always victims before they become criminals, and this paradox begs the sincere question: what’s worth killing for?
The middle-class audience, rallied together in awe of their anti-hero’s subversion against the law in the fight against injustice or the hunt for revenge, is a valid instrument in answering this question. The law-abiding citizen jumps into the passenger seat of the vehicle the vigilante is driving. From this seat they integrate themselves into the vendetta and lay their morals down to superimpose on the subject to see if they can negate their moral chastisement. As if they belong to the ranks of the fictional public who pass judgement on the actions of their wayward peers, the audience assumes the assignment of a jury to decide if the vigilante is guilty or not guilty of a gross abuse of free will. The biggest danger a vigilante faces is the risk of losing the public’s admiration, which is their only plausible excuse for not being crushed by the power of the state in its retaliation against them. As happens in Batman: The Dark Knight, the vigilante can so easily fall from the peak of their crusade’s pedestal and land in the heap of reviled transgressors who exist without mitigation for their illicit acts. What is so alarming about the balance of this equation of good versus evil is the limits to which a vigilante can go before they begin hurting the wrong people, the innocent others they once thought they were protecting. This is where characters like Travis Bickle and the cast of Outlaw, who stumble into this catch-22, run the risk of destroying themselves before they’ve even exacted the revenge that originally diverted them. Outlaw is a real gem of a vigilante film as it involves the decimation of a group, made up of men who have lost faith in their country. One character in particular, a barrister in the criminal trial of a mob boss, is constantly arguing the role of the law in defending the innocent until he meets his tragic end.
It wouldn’t be farfetched for an individual to become jealous of someone else who denies the role of the law in this manner. For the majority of people there is no reason to rebel in the style of a victim because they have lost nothing that they hold dear to their hearts, and most of those who have can’t materialise a hatred powerful enough to make them override the principles of society that consent to higher national authority. Why should one man break the seal of law just because he feels it failed him? He’s not fighting for anyone else. Or is he? Whatever the motives and actions of a vigilante, it remains relatively certain that people love to see a victim make their own rules by which to achieve revenge. Despite the blatant illegality of their decisions you can’t help but agree with the vigilante that life is all about give and take, and if you take what’s not yours you better be ready to have yours taken. It’s the mystery of the commitment that makes vigilantism a real attraction in the domestic person’s eye, and the fear of being truly alone like the unsung anti-hero that keeps most of us from becoming a fully-fledged rogue of society.