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MPAA Rating
November 30, 2009
Paul Asay
Not Just a Movie: A Blow to the Head

Not Just a Movie: A Blow to the Head


"In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people!"

"No, in this family, we shoot them!"

—Tom and Jack Stall, in A History of Violence 

The Dark Knight is widely regarded as a tragic, brutal tour de force. In my Plugged In review, I opined that Knight’s bleak menace was more disturbing than that of Saw IV. Other reviewers have called it "sadistic" and "nihilistic." Some proffered the idea that the PG-13 film could’ve been rated R. The film is littered with murderous acts, brutal fights, massive explosions and one poor chap getting half roasted. The Joker, the film’s charismatic and anarchist villain, impales a guy’s skull with a pencil. A pencil!

But when I sat through the film with my 17-year-old son, he was nonplussed by its onscreen havoc.

"Prince Caspian was more violent," he said.

"But the pencil!" I wailed.

He just shrugged his shoulders. "Prince Caspian was really violent."

My son might be right. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the PG film based on C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s book, is a war movie, bristling with swords and arrows and nearly nonstop battlefield action. The body count in Caspian far outstrips Knight’s. The carnage might be heavier, too (though, admittedly, no one takes a No. 2 to the noggin). And, when innocents are trapped by evil—in Miraz’s castle in Caspian, in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse in Knight—it’s the folks in Knight who survive. The violence in The Dark Knight makes you squirm. The violence in Prince Caspian makes you cry.

Which brings up these questions: Is violence, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? Will we Christians be more likely to accept or ignore violence if it comes from a Christian source? And is that altogether a good idea?

Shot Through the Heart
Americans have long loved their gun-toting, fist-swinging action heroes. We popularized the Western shoot-’em-up and perfected the car chase. The star of America’s very first "blockbuster" was a great white shark that devoured innocent swimmers. Many folks won’t even go to a movie unless they can count on a couple of things blowing up.

To me, one of the most fascinating paradoxes in Christendom is how we process violence on the big screen. Jesus, outside of an angry trip to the temple, was pretty pacifistic. We’re constantly told to "love your neighbors" and "turn the other cheek" and "if a man takes your coat, give him your shirt, also." Yet most evangelical Christians have a yen for John Wayne.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m pointing fingers here, because I’m as guilty as they come. I’d much rather see—and have my children see—a ’50s-style shootout than a sleazy sex scene. You probably agree with me. Because The Lord of the Rings trilogy was widely embraced by Christians for its good vs. evil ethos—even though it was helmed by onetime horrormeister Peter Jackson and featured all manner of beheadings, impalings and immolations. And most Christians have nothing but praise for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which Roger Ebert said was "the most violent film I have ever seen."

There’s some legitimacy in all of this. While onscreen nudity is rarely a critical storytelling device, violence often is. It’s hard to tell a war story without showing the war. How much to show? That’s a matter for debate, even (or especially) among Christians. Would Oskar Schindler’s fight to save the Jews in Schindler’s List have been as powerful an image had we not known what these Jews were being rescued from? Would Christ’s sacrifice on the cross have been quite so resonant had we not seen the physical nature of that sacrifice in The Passion?

But even if violence can help a movie’s story, it can hurt moviegoers in ways we’re only beginning to realize.

Sticks and Stones
In 1999, three 16-year-old boys in England were convicted of killing 15-year-old Michael Moss. During the attack, they tied the boy to a chair, poured cider over him and apparently tried to cut his ear off as they stabbed and beat him to death—a mimicry of Quentin Tarantino’s film Reservoir Dogs. One of the kids even sang a song from the film during the assault.

It’s not an isolated incident. Every few months, the public hears about another so-called copycat crime—one which was apparently inspired, in part, by a movie or TV show. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used the initials NBK—inspired by Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers—as code for the Columbine shootings. The year The Passion came out, there were 32 anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S., according to a group called the Rights of B’nai B’rith. The year before? Nine. John Hinckley watched Martin Scorsese’s vicious film Taxi Driver at least 15 times before his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Some experts believe spree killers consume media—certain films, bands, characters—as almost a kind of sacrament.

Now, that’s not to say anyone who watches Saw is on a one-way track to murder and mayhem. Folks who use these sorts of films as "inspiration" obviously have more rattling around in their brains than just bad entertainment choices. But while it’s unfair to say these films are at the root of such societal evil, it’s equally misleading to suggest that they don’t in any way influence you. After all, they’re meant to be influential. Moviemakers want to make you laugh or cry or think. But when confronted with the other, often unintended lessons some of these movies teach, many—creators and consumers—abdicate responsibility.

Stacking Bodies Like Cordwood
Consider, for example, horror movies. About 90% of us got scared watching a horror flick when we were children or teens, according to research by the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. And, while most of us quickly shook off that fear, more than a quarter experienced what researchers call "residual anxiety." They worried about taking showers because they saw Psycho, or wouldn’t swim in the ocean because of Jaws. One respondent who saw the great white wreak havoc on Amity Island said it wasn’t the shark attacks that bothered her: It was the blood. "For about two months after the movie," she said, "I had nightmares about blood. The nightmares didn’t always involve sharks, but always contained gross amounts of blood. To this day, I remain horrified of blood."

There are other problems, too. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, kids who watch a lot of violence in movies and on TV may start sympathizing or even associating with either the victim or the assailant, leading them to imitate what they see. More commonly, kids simply become numb to the violence over time—a condition that can eventually spill into indifference in real life.

In short, movie violence is pretty problematic when consumed by youngsters—particularly in the quantities in which they typically consume it.

According to a 2007 report by Entertainment Weekly, 18,712 people "died" during the year’s blockbuster summer movie season. "Only confirmed deaths are scored," EW said, "and any blood shed en masse is tallied through logical (though unscientific) estimation."

Many of those onscreen deaths occurred in R-rated movies, of course, partially safeguarding some children. But a movie doesn’t need to carry an R to include murder by, say, pencil. And even if it does, WebMD tells us that 12% of kids ages 10-14 watch violent R-rated movies.

In Part 6 of "Not Just a Movie," what does the letter R really stand for? Restricted? Raunch? Resonance?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8