Francois Truffaut said it was impossible to make an antiwar film, because every representation is an act of romanticization and therefore an act of recruitment. In the gun debate, one often hears a similar argument: the movies make guns look unduly romantic and cool, transforming them into fetish objects to celebrated with mindless glee, contributing to a culture of acceptability and the naturalization of violence. Whether representation, even if flattering or romanticized, actively influences the behaviour of an impressionable audience is hard to say, but in any case it seems obvious that the cinema—and the American cinema in particular—has a fascination with gun violence so extreme and unrelenting that it borders on irresponsible. The problem isn’t so much that movies explicitly valorize guns as it is that they do nothing to suppress their appeal. It’s a tacit sort of endorsement, all the more insidious because, as with war movies, the advocacy remains only implied.
In the immediate wake of the Senate's most recent failure to pass more comprehensive gun legislation, we’ve compiled ten films that make a point of doing the opposite: these are films for which guns are made to look deliberately unappealing, the violence that comes in their wake represented honestly as brutal, horrifying and something that we as a people can no longer abide.
Gus Van Sant’s misunderstood Palme D’or winner has high aspirations and an unenviable task: this is film that attempts to make sense of a school shooting in order to suggest that one ultimately can’t. In “Elephant”, gun violence plays out as unqualified atrocity, its consequences as incomprehensible as the reason it occurred at all. The crowning touch is a moment of unbearable defeat: we follow a student as heads cautiously toward the sounds of gunshots, hopeful that he might save the day, only to watch helplessly as he is shot down the second he makes a move.
2. “A Bittersweet Life”
Handguns, of course, are considerably less hard to come by in Korea than they are the United States, which is why in this Korean crime film a mobster in exile just can’t seem to get his hands on one. A backroom deal for a single weapon becomes an arduous exercise in politics and negotiation, culminating in a quick-draw shootout that leaves the dealers shot dead. The irony is that, once his gun is acquired, the hero is closer than ever to meeting his fate, brought about rather than avoided by making the purchase.
3. “The Tin Star”
One of Anthony Mann’s superlative black and white Westerns, “The Tin Star” stars Anthony Perkins as a small-town Sheriff forced to learn to shoot in order to survive the mistrust and dissent of his constituents. Here Mann depicts the gun as a crude instrument, a terrifying source of power that must be wielded with caution and fear. Far from confirming its importance, “The Tin Star” suggests we’d better off—or in the very least much safer—without the weapons on which we rely.
4. “Full Metal Jacket”
If ever there could be a successfully anti-war war movie, Stanley Kubrick’s hostile, seethingly angry “Full Metal Jacket” must be it. What distinguishes this particular representation of war—and, by extension, the attendant gun violence—is that Kubrick never feels the need to pay his respects to those bravely fighting, opting against the romance and valor of duty and instead lambasting the soldiers as much as the institution to which they belong. Where a film like “Saving Private Ryan” self-consciously makes heroes of its protagonists, “Full Metal Jacket” depicts them as idiots and buffoons, contributing to the repulsiveness of warfare rather than trying to avoid it. When even Private Joker eventually succumbs to the brutality around him, the point seems clear: in war, everybody gets dragged into the muck eventually.
5. “Bowling for Columbine”
Michael Moore’s admittedly simplistic and reductive documentary might seem an obvious choice when discussing anti-gun movies, but it nevertheless remains an important one, broadening the conversation about American gun culture to the national stage and illuminating dimensions of a subject traditionally kept shrouded in mistruth. Where Moore fails as a rigorous documentarian, he succeeds as a populist voice, and it’s worth recognizing the value of his influence on an underdiscussed issue.
6. “Blood Simple”
The Coen brothers probably aren’t the first names that come to mind when one thinks of filmmakers averse to glamorizing violence—“Miller’s Crossing” is nothing if not in love with the look and feel of its tommy guns, and “No Country For Old Men” practically invented a new weapon—but their startling debut, the darkly comic noir “Blood Simple”, treats its guns as instigators of a sick cosmic joke, one which sees murders committed strictly in the name of misunderstanding. Guns go off, lives change, and nobody can walk away clean from the consequences.
7. “Taxi Driver”
“Taxi Driver” is the rare case of a movie that, like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Scarface”, is so commonly misperceived as endorsing the violent acts of its protagonist that one wonders how effective its true message could possibly be. De Niro’s iconic bedroom posturing made drawing a gun—or, y’know, mounting one to a custom arm rig—an act of movie-star cool, but the point is precisely that it’s all an act. It’s telling that the point at which he finally buys a gun from a black market dealer’s suitcase is also the point at which Travis Bickle makes the leap from on-edge to off the deep end, and one would be hard-pressed to describe the fallout from this purchase as anything but grotesque.
8. “Point Blank”
John Boorman’s postmodern crime film tells a decidedly oblique sort of revenge story. Lee Marvin plays Walker, a man on a mission for vengeance after a betrayal during a robbery-gone-wrong leaves him shot and left for dead. Boorman makes Walker out to be a veritable precursor to the Terminator, crashing through downtown Los Angeles on a hunt for the $93,000 he feels he’s owed by his former partners. Guns become a fixture of the skyline: snipers hide from sight, men fall without warning, and shots rip through the sky like claps of thunder. “Point Blank” reinstills guns with a sense of actual power, making them a force to be reckoned with and an object to fear.
9. “Starship Troopers”
Paul Verhoeven’s strategy for making the case against gun violence has always been to rub our faces in it, forcing us to recognize the repulsiveness of the spectacle we desire. “Starship Troopers” takes this approach into the realm of satirical science fiction, taking the American military-industrial complex to task for its continued exploitation of its own populace and the wars it draws them into arbitrarily. It’s a searing critique, one as much about the abhorrent excessive of on-screen violence as it is about the real world stuff that inspires it, though it so successfully adopts the look and feel of the pulp material it’s satirizing that many mistook it, rather ironically, for an earnest piece of schlock cinema.
10. “A History of Violence”
David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” tackles the representation of violence in two very different ways: on the one hand, this is a movie about inherited traditions of violent behavior, drawing explicit connections between violent acts and their long-term repercussions for both the people who commit them and those they commit them upon. But on the other hand, “A History of Violence” engages with the issue through its very form, growing increasingly violent—and increasingly absurd—as its running time continues and the body count rises. By the end of the picture, the film has evolved (or devolved) from naturalistic drama into what is essentially a live-action comic book or cartoon, in the process critiquing our tendency to conflate violence and heroics.
Do any other films make a compelling case against guns and gun violence? Let us know in the comments.