While watching Gunpowder Milkshake, a genuinely awful new action film starring Karen Gillan as a professional assassin, I found my boredom repeatedly pierced by one question: why do I not feel anything? The film is an intensely violent one, full of fight scenes in which characters are beaten, stabbed, and shot, their bodies sent flying and their brains blown out. And yet, I felt nothing; no terror, no vicious catharsis, not even an involuntary wince.
I think this speaks not to any desensitisation on my part, but rather to a numbness that has enfolded itself over Hollywood depictions of violence in general. Developments in special effects technology and the loosening of certain censorship restrictions have theoretically made mass violence easier to depict on film than in any previous point in history. However, most mainstream filmmakers seem less able or inclined than ever to make it hurt. We are certainly a long way from the modern violent movie’s origins in late-1960s, with succès de scandale like Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch. The latter’s director, Sam Peckinpah, was for a time synonymous with the cinematic vocabulary of graphic violence. His use of sanguine gore, extreme camera angles, and disorienting edits makes his scenes of violence both thrilling and horrifying. Peckinpah has spiritual kin in filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (whose Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino seduce the viewer into identifying with the perpetrators of violence only to slap them in the face with its ugly consequences) and Kathryn Bigelow (who from the glossy Point Break to the severe Zero Dark Thirty uses sound and image to dramatise the physical and psychological toll of violence). Their violence is aestheticised but not abstract, exhilarating but frightening, never presenting didactic judgements but always weighty with consequence; half-cautionary, half-spectacle, never possible to ignore or shrug off.
Blame it on any number of technological or cultural factors, or the logic of brute commerce, but that kind of weight and substance seems to have gone out of screen violence. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong or lesser about stylised or even beautified violence. Look at Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns or John Woo’s melodramatic crime dramas, which heighten their gunplay into arias sung with bullets and squibs. But most of today’s polished spectacles lack that artistry. The recent Marvel, DC, and Star Wars films have almost all been rated 12A for ‘fantasy violence’ and tend to emphasise the former over the latter. These films nearly always feature battle scenes depicting death and destruction on a scale unprecedented in cinematic history, but the combat is swaddled in CGI, and the weapons used and injuries inflicted are of a decidedly unreal nature. You cannot really imagine either carrying out or being on the receiving end of the violence in these films. They are light shows or tech demos.
Much the same is true, however, of most more ‘adult’ action franchises. The aforementioned Gunpowder Milkshake is a fairly obvious derivation of the (admittedly more artful) John Wick film series, in which Keanu Reeves’ title character participates in bloody but balletic combat, in scenes that are as meticulously lit and costumed as they are choreographed. They are terrific fun, but are essentially adult cartoons where the violence is periodically gruesome but never seriously disturbing. They have crasser, cruder cousins in the Kingsman and Deadpool franchises, which purport to offer a punkish, adult alternative to the weightless carnage of the aforementioned franchises, but really just put a bloody, profane gloss on the same adolescent ethos. The violence in these films is graphic but still essentially weightless in its CGI-heavy execution, and never too intense to be laughed off. Good guys and bad, deserving and undeserving targets, remain cleanly delineated.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Low-budget thrillers like Green Room and Dragged Across Concrete have shown that there is still a place for drawn-out tension and raw, intimate injury. Lynne Ramsay brilliantly used inference and ellipses to convey a strung-out killer’s attitude to his trade in You Were Never Really Here. But there is still not enough. We need more of their ilk, and of Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Bigelow’s, to pump some blood back into the anaemic body of film violence.