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The Joy of Violence

‘Reacher,’ ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ and the pleasure of watching bad people get hurt, badly.
February 23, 2022
The Joy of Violence

When Tom Cruise first tackled the role of Jack Reacher a decade ago, fans of Lee Child’s hobo investigator were outraged. We movie lovers with no knowledge of the source material looked at the angst and scratched our collective head.

We were excited the film was directed and written by the Oscar-winning Christopher McQuarrie, who hadn’t helmed a picture since making the cult classic The Way of the Gun 12 years earlier. We were intrigued by the casting of the meme-worthy director Werner Herzog as the film’s villain. And we were puzzled why you wouldn’t want the world’s biggest movie star and a guy with a nearly perfect sense of how movies work lending his talents to adaptations of your favorite novels. That puzzlement usually dissolved into something like disgust when we were given the reason.

“Tom Cruise can’t play Jack Reacher. He’s too small.”

It lined up too well with too many gibes about Hollywood in general and actors in particular, the idea that so many of them are so tiny, their inflated onscreen statures essentially an extension of movie magic. What happened to the real men like Clint Eastwood (6′4″) or Arnold Schwarzenegger (6′2″ high, approximately the same size wide)? Given how much disbelief we have to suspend for basically every movie ever made, this was the thing you’re getting hung up on? The fact that Tom Cruise is shorter than the description of the character in the book? Ridiculous. Piffle. Get a life.

But you know what? The fans weren’t wrong.

This is the basic lesson of Reacher, the first season of which is available in full on Amazon Prime. In the age of prestige TV, with mega-budgets creating all manner of incredible visions, Reacher is a bit of a throwback. The story is a rather straightforward mystery, as Reacher (Alan Ritchson, who clocks in at 6′2″ but is shot in ways that make him seem as big as the books’ 6′5″ Reacher and has muscle to spare) tries to figure out who murdered his older brother in a small Georgia town. But it’s shot mostly in Canada. The effects—like the digital flames inserted into the finale’s big action set piece, for instance—are, at best, dodgy. There are no movie stars here, unless we’re counting Bruce McGill (whose efforts as D-Day in Animal House led to a long and successful career as a character actor).

Reacher is cheap-looking, is what I’m saying. I’d be surprised if the whole eight-episode season cost as much as the first Tom Cruise movie. And yet: it’s remarkably effective. Because it really doesn’t cost very much money to film an enormous, hulking beast of a man do violence to people who deserve it.

And the joy of this show is just that: watching Reacher hurt people in various ways over the course of seven or eight hours as he attempts to figure out who killed his brother and why. The who and the why only matter in the sense that they are moral justifications allowing us to take visceral pleasure in viewing Reacher, say, dismantle a gang of skinheads in a prison shower—snapping limbs and ripping out eyeballs as he goes—or beat the snot out of a spoiled rich kid and his demented friends in a fancy restaurant after they’ve spray-painted “whore” on his lady friend’s truck or simply stomp on a man’s neck, crushing it.

Seeing bad things happen to bad people is cathartic. If I were a Freudian, I would suggest there is an element of transference here: the desire to see those who have wronged you in your real life punished by a hulking man-mountain who can reduce a cell phone to splinters with his bare hands and snap flex cuffs with a twitch of his wrists. Mostly, though, it’s just exhilarating to watch a literal manifestation of some primal form of justice wreak havoc on those who have sinned against the rightful order of the universe.

It is fun to watch bad things happen to bad people. It is one of life’s great pleasures.

“Bad people” exist along a spectrum, of course. None of the victims in Texas Chainsaw Massacre murders the brother of a detective hobo or runs a money-counterfeiting operation or is a Venezuelan gangster with a penchant for crucifying those who displease them. They’re not bad in the sense that the villains of Reacher are capital-b Bad.

They’re more annoying than bad, if we’re being fair. Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore) are a pair of Instagram-famous chefs who have decided to move to the town of Harlow, Texas, and “revitalize” it. Which is to say, take over the ghost town’s main street with the aid of a bank and remake it in the image of a Gen Z nightmare, lousy with influencers and comic book stores and hipster bodegas selling $12 breakfast sandwiches. A Tesla on every street corner parked next to an overpriced taco truck that has fled the newly luxe environs of nearby Austin.

Then again, they’re not not-bad, depending on your point of view. From the point of view of the people they’re displacing, they’re about as welcome as a plague of iPhone-carrying locusts. From the point of view of an old woman (Alice Krige) who runs the town’s orphanage, they might actually be bad, considering she claims to still have the deed to the house they’re trying to take from her to give to a millennial with dreams of opening a Taylor Swift-themed bed-and-breakfast or somesuch.

There are some modest signifiers that we’re supposed to empathize with said locusts. One of the locals open-carries a handgun and his truck rolls coal. The evicted woman has a Confederate flag flapping from the façade of her house. And when she has a heart attack after Dante calls the cops to have her evicted, well, them’s the breaks if she’s not the legal owner, right? Too bad for her and her hulking son (Mark Burnham), who gently carries the frail old woman to the back of a police van in the hopes of getting her to the hospital.

Indeed, it is too bad, since the hulking son in question happens to be the one and only Leatherface, who has been hiding in this tiny town under the protection of this diminutive caregiver ever since the events of the original film released in 1974. It’s also bad for the amusingly diverse crew of Instafluencers who have descended upon this deep-Texas town and have divvied it up among themselves via live auction while a DJ blasts terribly generic house music. It’s very bad for these folks when Leatherface shows up with his preferred implement of dismemberment on the party bus that brought them all to town.

But it’s pretty good for us. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to grin at least a little as you’re watching a guy get chainsawed to death right after saying “Try anything and you’re canceled, bro” while he’s holding up a cell phone recording video as if it’s a modern escutcheon, livestreaming protection for the virtuous from the whips and lashes of the unenlightened.

From a storytelling point of view, this is the biggest problem with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: we really shouldn’t be rooting for Leatherface. It’s … unseemly. Granted, the not-so-secret joy of the series has always been watching this monstrous galoot and his family do violence to annoying people (and the victims in this series generally are pretty annoying, just as the victims of Jason and Freddy and Michael Myers and Ghostface have often been quite annoying). Still, there’s a difference between wincing while some annoying hippie kids get chopped up because they trespassed in the wrong house and actively pumping your fist while the most annoying representations of modernity have their blood spilled and their limbs strewn about.

It feels too cute to describe Jack Reacher and Leatherface as flipsides of the same deadly coin. But the functions they serve onscreen in their latest iterations really aren’t that different. The goals they’re trying to achieve are certainly different, but for the audience, the result is much the same: People we dislike (either via story mechanics that reveals them to be despicable or their general je ne se quoi that correlates with a particularly annoying type of person in real life) suffer badly at their hands.

Both characters are animated reminders of the pleasing moral fluidity of violence, a running theme of life in this moment. Though we often profess to abhor violence, we more often tacitly accept it when it is performed against those we dislike or feel have wronged us or our worldview.

Anyone can block traffic; unless we’re actually in the intersection and worried about getting home for dinner, the amount of anger we feel while watching on TV as agents of the state wade in to drag away the protesters generally corresponds to how much weight we lend the grievances of those blocking the box. Anyone can dismember a nation like a chainsaw-wielding maniac; unless we’ve got family on the ground, we’re more inclined to support or oppose the action depending on how badly it makes our perceived enemies look and feel.

Taking joy in the pain caused to those we believe have wronged us is one of the few uniting features of modern life. Schadenfreude cinema isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association