Put Your Guns Down: A Reflection On Movie Violence After Newtown

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Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher.”

I wrote this column for today’s Press & Dakotan about my reaction to violence on the big screen in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Have you had a similar experience?

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Suddenly, things were different.

It started with “Jack Reacher,” the film starring Tom Cruise about an ex-member of the Army who is a drifter and reluctantly agrees to solve a crime.

The opening scene shows a man setting up a sniper’s nest in a parking garage. He proceeds to shoot down a handful of people in the street.

I cringed, and an ache developed in my stomach as I watched the seemingly random murder of innocents proceed in great detail.

With the gun-fueled massacre of children that transpired in Newtown the week before, I couldn’t passively consume these images. The wound created within me by the real-life violence was too fresh.

I wasn’t the only one who cringed at “Jack Reacher” in the aftermath of Newtown. The Dec. 15 premiere of the film in Pittsburgh, where Cruise was to walk the red carpet, was delayed in the wake of the shooting. Paramount didn’t get into specifics of why the decision was made, other than to say it was out of honor and respect for the families of the victims.

My mixed feelings about sitting in the theater that December night began even before the film’s opening credits.

Each movie trailer leading up to the main feature had characters toting guns, usually accompanied by big explosions. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in “Pain and Gain.” Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Last Stand.” Bruce Willis in “A Good Day to Die Hard.” I had the same experience in movie after movie I attended during the last few weeks of the year. The advertisements became a blur of gun violence.

Is this all our film culture has to offer? Reams and reams of shooting and explosions until it reaches the point of self-parody and all we in the audience can do is laugh at the absurdity of it?

Often, that seems to be the case, and I am growing weary of it. I see too much of this violence play out in real life, with almost 80 people killed in mass shootings in America during 2012 alone.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. A recent poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter found that 70 percent of those over age 30 feel there is too much violence depicted in advertising for movies and TV.

I would go a step further and say there is too much violence in the films and television shows themselves.

And yet, this is not me calling for government action or some kind of censorship. Nor am I attempting to link violence in films to the mass shootings.

I even think there is a place for violence in our entertainment, as it is the source of some very good storytelling that I really enjoy.

No, my grievance is with the frequency with which violence is used as an integral part of films, television or even video games, as if there was no other compelling element of human existence. Are the only stories worth telling those in which a character takes another’s life?

I hope if I write a fictional story for the page, stage or screen some day, I have the strength to avoid the storytelling crutch that is extreme violence and murder and find another aspect of life that people would be interested in seeing unfold.

It is possible.

Some of the most beautiful, thought-provoking films I saw this past year included no gratuitous gun play or explosions. I think of the heartbreak and hope watching a troubled child in “The Kid with a Bike”; the almost-mythical love story of “Moonrise Kingdom”; the self-destructive love of “The Deep Blue Sea”; the struggling drug addict in “Oslo, August 31st”; and the poignant coming-of-age story in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

In the brooding Turkish film “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the director even manages to find a way to deal with the aftermath of a murder that raises interesting questions about guilt and mercy. But the film does not include a vengeful vigilante who tortures and kills people while hunting for the killer. In Hollywood, that would no doubt be the default storyline.

In short, the creators of our popular entertainment need to broaden their imaginations and acknowledge a wider range of human existence.

Put the guns down every once in a while.

Many of us in the audience have already surrendered. We’ve had enough.

We’re asking nicely for more films with memorable, humanist characters and not just memorable death scenes filled with firepower.

2 thoughts on “Put Your Guns Down: A Reflection On Movie Violence After Newtown

  1. Great stuff, Nathan. I often have this thought when I’m reading contemporary literature as well, even books I really enjoy: are sex and violence the only aspects of human existence worth exploring in print? This comes from the opposite perspective, since the violence of films and TV tends to be “lowest common denominator,” whereas it seems that it’s considered hip, intellectual, edgy to engage in sordid explorations of the same in literature. Like you, I recognize that there is a place for violence in storytelling, because cutting it out entirely means cutting out some of our greatest stories. But the extent to which we idolize it, playing into the myth of redemptive violence, I think might be the problem more than the mere presence of violence in our stories – it is a part of life after all. I reflected on this just after Newtown, actually: http://sdpeacejustice.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/looking-beyond-movie-violence/.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Hey Tom, that was a great column. I really enjoyed the film of “The Hobbit,” but I have not read the book. It’s very interesting that Bilbo didn’t “prove” himself with violence in the original story. I wonder why Jackson decided that was necessary in the film.
      Thanks for reading!

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