I recently saw Neil Jordan’s new film The Brave One, which stars Jodie Foster as a Erica Bain, a vigilante killer who cleans up the scum of NYC in revenge for the brutal murder of her husband by a couple of thugs in a park. It’s a very interesting film for a number of reasons—essentially a feminist retelling of Taxi Driver (which also starred Foster)—but its chief provocation is that it offers up a likeable protagonist who kills for pleasure, walking the streets at night in search of (male) sinners who need to be silenced.
Another incarnation of this amoral anti-hero is seen in the show Dexter (now on CBS). A sharply written and well-acted drama, Dexter follows a serial killer (the title character played by Michael C. Hall) who has an insatiable urge to kill those who kill others. He’s as likeable as any character on television and wouldn’t harm a hair on any principled, law-abiding citizen. But when it comes to rapists, pedophiles, murderers, and human traffickers, Dexter is as menacing as Jeffrey Dahmer. The show doesn’t condone or celebrate Dexter’s actions, but it definitely wants us to be on his side. To that end, it offers a “life is horribly complicated” backstory that attempts to explain (perhaps justify?) Dexter’s violent actions. Like Erica Bain, Dexter faced a violent past that made him who he is today: an unstable timebomb with a murderous axe to grind.
These are just two of the most recent examples of vigilante heroes in pop culture, which is just one subset of the much broader trend of moral ambiguity (the tendency of culture today to celebrate “the gray areas”). But none of this is especially novel or unique to the 21st century. I immediately think back to the novels of Dostoevsky that tackled these notions of DIY justice.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the idea that some men are of an “extraordinary” nature, set apart from, or rather above, the common man. The character of Porfiry interprets the idea in this way: “The ordinary must live in obedience…while the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law.” In the novel, this concept is embodied in the character of Raskolnikov, a neurotic, distressed student who kills a pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Like Porfiry, Raskolnikov believes that the extraordinary man has a right (not official, but his own) to “step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea—sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it.” For Raskolnikov, his murderous actions constitute the “stepping over” of an extraordinary man, for in the killing of the wretched pawnbroker many people—if not the whole of mankind—will be better off.
So goes the logic of both The Brave One and Dexter. In each case we find ourselves rooting on the murderous actions of these vigilantes because they are “taking out the trash” so to speak. The disturbing allure of these types of films (and TV shows) is that we all, secretly, enjoy seeing a bad guy get shot in the face or (in the case of Dexter, chopped into pieces and thrown in the trash).
But there is a frightful end sum to this type of vigilante amorality. In Crime and Punishment progresses, Raskolnikov begins to understand that in trying to rationalize his killing through some grand idea, he is deluding himself. He senses the dishonesty of it, and though it proves painful, admits to himself that: “I simply killed—killed for myself.” At the end of the novel (the “punishment” portion in Siberia), Raskolnikov imagines the true implications of the idea that had fueled his former torment. He has a disturbing vision of pestilence taking over the world and producing a race of men who each assume the right to step over and who each find the truth “in himself alone.”
This vision paints a scary portrait of a world governed by relativistic morality. Dostoevsky’s comments that in this world “they did not know whom to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good” prophesy the coming of postmodernism. Of course, the initial cultural manifestation of the “stepping over” idea seems to have been the rise in totalitarianism in the early-mid twentieth century, but Dostoevsky expresses a foresight of what would ultimately come in totalitarianism/modernism’s wake. Once one or two “extraordinary men” step over and take the reigns of a totalitarian authority, the natural outcome is that more and more people view themselves in the same way. Soon, because extraordinariness is so arbitrary and totalitarianism so distasteful, everyone claims the same rights to power and/or truth. Raskolnikov sees something of this future in his idea, and that is why he ultimately discounts it.
Does our culture today see the folly and contradiction that Raskolnikov finally does? Or are we once again romanced by the notion of “extraordinary” men and “above the law” morality? More broadly: is our emphasis on cultural specificity and relativism weakening our ability to even delineate where the “stepping over” lines are? It’s a question and pesky problem that deserves to be discussed.