Death and Killing on Film

01/02/2022

The Demise in Its Various Manifestations

Watching Nomadland one is aware of death in cinema. Both the central character’s husband in the past and her friend in the present die; they are not killed. It is an important distinction and one pressing in contemporary American film where many are killed but few die. To be killed is to exist and be extinguished without consequence; to die is to give significance to death. When the philosopher Peter Singer wonders in Practical Ethics whether it matters if one chicken dies to be replaced by another since it appears the fowl have no consciousness to call their own, we might fret over Singer’s claims, and will return to them later, but see in the remarks a useful analogy to how numerous characters are killed on film. 

In Nomadland, the central character Fern’s (Frances McDormand) husband has died before the film starts, and this is partly why she has taken to the road, while before the end of the film her friend Swankie will pass away, with the nomads of the title, including Fern, devoting an evening to her memory. Swankie dies of cancer but we don’t want simply to say that people who pass away of natural causes and those who are killed often at the end of the gun are necessary dichotomies in terms of feeling. A violent director like Sam Peckinpah can seem very much on the side of killing but within his murderous aesthetic there is often too an acknowledgement of death. Maximilian Le Cain may be right to say “few films can be as saturated with death as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The tone is set from the inspired opening scene, which inter-cuts Billy and his gang shooting chickens with the murder of Pat Garrett years later. There are one or two action scenes in the traditional sense, but the vast majority of the killings are dealt with in a perfunctory style.” (Sense of Cinema) Yet we need only think of the elegiac scene in Pat Garrett where Pat’s friend Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) gets killed by members of Billy’s old gang and wants to die by the river. Baker is a minor character in the film but he is given a significant death. He stumbles towards the water and his wife (Katy Jurado) drops her rifle even if the shoot-out continues elsewhere. As we see the roof of the house in a high-angle medium long shot from above, Baker in the distance and his wife moving towards him, so we also hear Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ on the soundtrack. When we see Baker down by the river, Peckinpah films from the other side of the water with his wife a few metres behind him, before cutting to a low-angle shot of his wife looking distraught. We then cut to Baker clutching his stomach before we cut back to Mrs Baker crying, aware her husband is moments away from death. The film then offers us once again the long shot we earlier saw from the high-angle above the roof. Peckinpah was undeniably a director known for the violence he depicted but he also sometimes showed within that killing the awareness of death and was willing to give time, attention and form to depicting it.

Peckinpah has often been invoked by critics looking at genealogical comparisons for the John Wick series, with Neil Morris talking of the “exquisite brutality of Sam Peckinpah.” (Indyweek.com) However, for our purposes a film like John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is a variation of Singer’s comment about non-sentient animals and whether we should eat them. Singer says “although meat-eaters are responsible for the death of the animal they eat and for the loss of pleasure experienced by that animal, they are also responsible for the creation of more animals, since if no one ate meat there would be no more animals bred for fattening…we may call this the “replaceability argument’”. (Practical Ethics) We don’t wish to be overly ingenious and might add that Singer offers an argument that as a vegetarian he wouldn’t be inclined to insist upon personally. Yet there is something provocative here that can help us comprehend 

how many films use characters the way the food industry makes assumptions about non-sentient beings that it wouldn’t make about sentient ones. “For a non-self-conscious being, death is the cessation of experiences, in much the same way that birth is the beginning of experiences. Death cannot be contrary to an interest in continued life, and more than birth could be in accordance with an interest in commencing life. To this extent, with non- self-conscious life, birth and death cancel each other out; whereas with self-conscious beings the fact that once self-conscious one may desire to continue living means that death inflicts a loss for which the birth of another is insufficient compensation.” (Practical Ethics) Singer doesn’t claim certain animals don’t have sentience; he is just wondering if a creature doesn’t, whether some might see it as a fair argument for using them for meat if you also make sure that the death is as painless as possible.  

However, our purpose isn’t to embroil ourselves in Singer’s ethical arguments concerning the food industry but to take an aspect of his claim to comprehend something about the film industry. Imagine if film replaces the unsentient with the unfeeling, regarding numerous characters in film as devoid of a full range of humanity that has to be acknowledged. Imagine a variation of E. M. Forster’s famous notion of round and flat characters reconfigured instead as round and flattened ones. Round characters Forster says, “expand and secrete”, possessing a complexity that needs constant attention, while flat characters are very useful for the author: “since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere — little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void…” (Aspects of the Novel) The round characters in many contemporary films will be the heroes and heroines who have to work their way through the story. Though some might baulk at the notion that they are round as the examples Forster gives are round (figures from Dostoyevsky’s novels, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and numerous characters from In Search of Lost Time), narratively they are round as others are flattened. They function within the context of a cinematic “replaceability argument.” 

Austin Powers amusingly offers a variation on such a position when someone in the first film makes a phone call announcing that a woman has been widowed: her husband, in the employ of the dastardly Dr Evil, has been eaten by a bass-eating shark. There is nothing new cinematically in such a death but there is something facetiously new in making clear that even henchmen have families. A flattened character has briefly been allowed a little roundness, a moment that recognises his status as a human being. In Austin Powers it is a joke at the expense of many a Bond film, films that find elaborate ways to kill inconsequential characters — Austin Powers offers a few seconds of consequence. But imagine if Hollywood cinema had to provide a burial scene for every character it took out, how long the film might become or how a filmmaker would have to think twice before killing yet another flattened figure. In John Wick 3, near the beginning of the film Wick doesn’t just escape from the building, he kills his way out of it. That may sound an odd use of a verb: if we say he fought his way out it might sound more appropriate to the ear but it wouldn’t come close to describing the mayhem involved. Whether it is this moment early in the film when a $14m dollar bounty is put on his head, midway through when he is in Casablanca, or near the end of the film when he takes out various henchmen to get at the main man, Wick is a killing machine amongst death machines: that Wick’s purpose is to kill and it is the purpose of those he comes into contact with to die. They don’t have lives but only deaths, which is why we needn’t give them any more concern than we might an object in Wick’s way. They are living because they are dying, as we hear bones break, throats gargle and numerous cries of momentary pain. 

The John Wick movies may be influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville films as critics have noted, and the series even makes a nod to Melville’s work with a nightclub called the Red Circle (after Melville’s Le cercle rouge). But if we take into account a remark Roger Ebert makes when reviewing Melville’s Le samourai, we can see that, though the Wick films and Melville’s are hitmen movies, that is where the comparison ought to end. “The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense —how action releases tension, instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don't care about are happening constantly.” (Rogerebert.com) Ebert also says that, “Melville uses character, not action, to build suspense”, while we might say that John Wick uses action, not character, to release it. It is constantly releasing tension it hasn’t yet built and relies on pushing perspective to compensate for the impoverishment of its patience. The big word here is, as David Bordwell notes in The Way Hollywood Tells It, ‘energy’. “A fast cutting rate, the bipolar extremes of lens lengths, a reliance on tight singles, and the free-ranging camera are salient marks of intensified continuity.” Or as a directing manual from the early 2000s proposed, “a good objective for any first time director would be to move his camera as much as possible to look as hip and MTV-wise as he can.” (The Way Hollywood Tells It

If we are to distinguish between killing and death in film, then perhaps Ebert’s formula has its uses and we can expand upon it; that if it is character, not action, that builds suspense, can ‘empty’ action be suspenseful? An empty action would be one where no life is lost, where an empty building gets destroyed for the sake of spectacle, say, or where the lives lost are of no concern to the viewer. Some may claim that the many killings in John Wick 3 needn’t undermine the tension the film generates; that what matters is that we follow Wick’s quest and therein lies the suspense. But that is only so if Wick is in danger and while the film of course constantly puts him in dangerous situations, they are only perceived as such if we believe Wick is at risk. When a character happens to be in the midst of a film series of which he is the eponymous figure, and when we have seen him at the beginning of John Wick 3 taking on a large number of people all of whom he kills, then where is the suspense going to come from; where is the sense of danger likely to reside? As though aware of this problem, the film replaces suspense with ingenuity when we see early on, for example, Wick using a horse’s legs to kick an opponent in the face. It is a very clever way of showing the myriad methods Wick has of taking out his victims but it isn’t the same as suspense even if ingenuity could indeed be part of it. If Wick had been cornered without a weapon in a stable while a man comes after him with a machete, and we know that the horse, when frightened in a particular way, kicks its legs in the air, but we don’t know if Wick knows, that would be suspense, however cheap. We wait to find out if Wick will, by accident or design, have the horse kick the man with the machete in the face and thus Wick can escape. But such a sequence would have to be built while in John Wick sequences are usually engineered: that an engineered scene is pretty close to what the MTV style quoted above demands. The camera is constantly creating ‘energy’ but not suspense since the sequence hasn’t been built at all. Clearly, few filmmakers were greater masterbuilders than Hitchcock but numerous directors from Melville to Peckinpah, Polanski to Friedkin, have master-built on occasion.

Even in one of Peckinpah’s lesser films and one that bears a few plot similarities with John Wick 3, the director shows he can build rather than engineer a sequence and relies on a sense of character to do so. Fifteen minutes into The Killer Elite, George Hansen takes out a client with a silencer while his friend and colleague Mike Locken obliviously takes a shower in the room next door. Hansen has no reason to worry since Hansen is his mate but the killing suggests he ought to be very worried indeed as Hansen has just murdered the client for no apparent reason and we see the man’s brains splatter against the wall. As Mike exits the shower, Hansen is sitting waiting for him with the gun in his hand and Mike sees it as joke — we are more inclined to be worried for Mike than Mike will be for himself since we have seen George take out the operative while all Mike will have seen of George is camaraderie over the years that we too have briefly shared in the film’s opening minutes. For the viewer, such moments will be weak next to the murder we have just witnessed but strong for Mike who has years of friendship and no knowledge yet of the murder. If Hitchcock often saw that suspense rested on the audience knowing more than the character, then this is indeed an example of suspense. But it is also full suspense: that it relies on someone acting out of character for the tension to be generated. Here we have an apparent friend suddenly turning into a cruel enemy as Hansen shoots George in the elbow and the knee. 

One can even claim that the suspense has been built not only within the story but beyond the diegesis as well. James Caan plays Mike and Robert Duvall Hansen; they had appeared in films together several times before (CountdownThe Rain PeopleThe Godfather) and so showing them as friends early on would be augmented by a back catalogue of possible diegetic familiarity too. It is also a suspense sequence that impacts enormously on the story: Caan must recover from his injuries and find out why his friend betrayed him. Some watching the sequence may see a lack of ‘energy’ as Peckinpah offers almost no action since the operative murdered and Mike are helplessly at the mercy of Hansen, and Peckinpah uses minimal extraneous cutting to develop the scene. The film offers one moving insert shot as it looks like Mike might go for his gun, sitting on a table by the shower, but Hansen gives him no chance to go for it. Here suspense is very much character, with the human complexity more important than the cinematically ingenious. 

We may note too that Peckinpah’s continuing theme throughout his work was that of friendship and betrayal, and what mattered usually was that the action be contained by that preoccupation. This sequence from The Killer Elite may be from a minor Peckinpah work but it still contains a density of thought and feeling absent from the properly empty action of John Wick 3. Even though the operative has a very minor role he has several lines of dialogue, enquires about his status, and says that he has heard that the CIA-affiliated firm has never lost the life of anybody they have been protecting. Mike says they have; but George corrects him saying that this individual hanged himself. That George goes on to kill this client nevertheless suggests that it isn’t a casual thing: the single death sets the whole story in motion. In John Wick 3 the death isn’t singular, it is manifold: a series of more or less faceless people determined to kill him for the bounty. If we can say that were every film death to be attended by a funeral that would slow the killing down, by a less facetious reckoning if film had to see each death as singular, where the existence, motive and purpose of the person killed had to be acknowledged, then the death rate might too be a lot more modest. 

It could seem provocative using Peckinpah as the model for modest mayhem given the relatively hefty body count in his work. But usually the deaths he shows are characterised or collateralised: they are given either existential weight, however briefly as we find in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Killer Elite, or the film acknowledges how somebody who hasn’t been given that momentary existential weight is caught in the chaos of a skirmish — never more evident than at the beginning of The Wild Bunch. Now perhaps some might say that it is a little unfair to start in the midst of a series of films and that the first John Wick opens less aggressively than the third, with Wick getting over his wife’s death from cancer as he bonds with a dog that will be cruelly killed by Russian gangsters. However, what interests us fundamentally is the difference between death and killing in film and that Peckinpah, despite a reputation for sadistic violence, even exploitative violence, isn’t a director of mindless killing but mindful death. Roger Ebert may say of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs that, “the violence is the movie's reason for existing; it is the element that is being sold, and in today's movie market, It should sell well.” (Rogerebert.com) Next to John Wick 3 though it seems the violence is very calibrated indeed, and far more psychologically pertinent. 

The aggression Straw Dogs builds towards is paranoiacally developed as David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mathematician with a beautiful and desirable young wife, Amy (Susan George), whom the locals covet and who was herself originally from the town. Peckinpah doesn’t create complex secondary characterisation, that is for sure, but he does insist that milieu is filled out and that the characters killed aren’t introduced merely to be action fodder. At the beginning of the film, Amy tells David that she has just bought a man-trap and, around the same time, we are introduced to the man, Charlie, she used to know who will go on to rape her, and whose head will end up in the trap at the end of the film. This may be Peckinpah’s sadistic slow-burn foreshadowing but he is also creating characterisation out of future action exigency. Whatever the horrific sexual politics at work in a film that indicates Amy is ambivalent when she is raped first by Charlie, and terrified only when she is immediately afterwards raped by a friend of his, Peckinpah’s troublesomeness rests on determining, within the borders of genre, the ambiguity and verisimilitude of an artwork. Both the locations and the characters possess an attention to detail and complexity of personality that we might begin to expect from a work whose purpose is character and situation, so while Peckinpah is willing to accept generic markers, the moral difficulties are much more pronounced than in a typical thriller — but potentially all the more troublesome as a consequence. If a director chooses to say a village they specifically locate their film within has undercurrents of tension and resentment towards incomers, and if a director shows us a woman whose sexual feelings are ambivalent, these are more readily allowable if the director doesn’t then try and work these complexities out within a generic framework. Much of the film’s offensiveness comes from its concreteness: it does create character and situation but they also must pay off within the givens of the siege movie from one point of view and yet they don’t from others. A more cause-and-effect-oriented thriller would emphasise the revenge David seeks for his wife’s rape. However, as Elena Lazic says, “this sequence is wonderful in itself, for the way it treads such a dangerous line so respectfully, giving its main character real depth and restoring to the attack its true horror. Even more impressive is the fact that it is never turned into a plot point. The attack is not what eventually triggers David into finally revolting against these local men. Amy’s suffering is not the fuel that advances David’s story.” (Little White Lies

One will find that Charlie’s head ends up in the trap but this isn’t a simple case of revenge for his wife’s rape but a more complicated need to protect a local with learning difficulties from the mob, whom the locals suspect has abused a flirtatious teen. At the beginning of the film, it is this very teen we watch walking down the street co-carrying the trap. Peckinpah creates a complicated cross-cutting exploration of desire and hypocrisy which cannot be reduced to the cause and effect evident in generic revenge, the sort of killing by numbers of the later Death Wish is, in Straw Dogs, a much more complicated arithmetic. The mild-mannered mathematician may kill the man who rapes his wife but strictly speaking he isn’t avenging her but protecting another man accused of doing the very thing the man he kills has done to his partner. Our point is simple even if Straw Dogs’ exploration of it is intricate: that the film insists on showing people die and not merely killed. While in Death Wish one punk after another is presented as fresh flesh at the end of Charles Bronson’s gun, given no characterisational complexity, in Straw Dogs, Peckinpah shows that the violence exists within the mosaic of the milieu. If killing by numbers is the most simple of equations in John Wick 3 and Death Wish, Peckinpah often wonders how to make it death rather than killing, offering instead an emotional trigonometry. The angles might not be of equal length but they are all pertinent. Death Wish and John Wick 3 are closer to a straight line, with a very strong objective obliterating complexity and thus generating numerous killings without much interest in dying.

Writing on Film Violence, James Kendrick references Rikke Schubart who, Kendrick notes, sees “a substantial shift in the action film in the past twenty years away from passion (elements of the film related to plot, myth, psychology and emotion) and towards acceleration (elements of spectacle, affect and exhilaration.)” This seems a generally fair assessment, even if we can see that Death Wish is a 70s film that is more acceleration than passion, and Kendrick illustrates how ‘passionate’ the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is next to other Bond films preceding it. Nevertheless, Schubart’s claims generally stand. For our purposes, though, the historical aspect is secondary to the affective; not how cinema has moved from passion to acceleration but how we respond differently to death and killing in film. We are interested not chiefly in the increasing accelerative nature of violence but the presence of dying in the context of killing, even if the passionate will usually allow more space to death than acceleration. Thus it doesn’t finally matter whether a character dies increasingly at the end of a gun or of an incurable disease in a hospital bed, even if the former will usually appear much more dramatic than the latter, and thus much more accelerative. Death by a gun usually has an immediacy to it the slow-burn demise doesn’t possess. But this is partly why the former suggests acceleration and the latter passion if we think of the pathos often produced out of a death that dawdles towards its end. Whether it be IkiruTerms of Endearment, The Death of Mr Lazarescu or Amour, the films are preoccupied by the presence of death while usually a film about killing is concerned chiefly with danger. If Michael Haneke's Amour is a provocative work it rests on the danger that it incorporates within the death it moves towards. Near the beginning of the film, it looks like someone has broken into the elderly couple’s apartment when they return from a concert but nothing comes of it; even if nevertheless Georges will murder his wife in a mercy killing that contains its own frustrations. He suffocates her with a pillow that gives to the film the shock of a killing within what looked like a work moving towards the predictability of a demise, despite that opening and quickly forgotten early tease. Equally, The Death of Mr Lazarescu indicates the narratively inevitable in the very title as the film shows the death needn’t have been so likely but for the bureaucratic bungling and wangling that leaves a seriously ill man unable to get a hospital bed. There is suspense in The Death of Mr Lazarescu just as there is shock in Amour, but both films are very much concerned with death, its lingering likelihood and its ostensible dramatic impoverishment.

Death, all things considered, is rarely dramatic while killing usually is. When someone ‘merely’ dies it isn’t much of a story unless that death is the end of a life we are supposed to have found interesting. Whether it is David Bowie, Sean Connery or Muhammad Ali, it is their lives that interest us not their deaths. Sometimes there are famous lives that are also killings; whether murders, suicides or accidents. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed by assassination, James Dean and Princess Diana were killed in a car crash, and Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway killed themselves. Only the first two of these have the agency of murder but all of them can be referred to as killings perhaps partly because they all contain a dramatic question that is missing from someone who dies from cancer, angina or pneumonia. Thus not everybody who dies is killed but everyone who is killed dies. Cinema often seems to reverse this fact: many who are killed don’t die — there is no sense of a demise acknowledged only an obstacle overcome. Speaking of video games and their obsession with killing but also the rebirth for the avatar who can get up and start again, Kate Bevan says, “in a film, death is usually the climax, a cathartic event. The battle of Thermopylae is depicted in the film 300; commentators remarked on how much like a computer game it is, with its cinematic cutscenes and boss battles. However, this film ends, as the real events did, with the glorious death of its hero, Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and his plucky army.” (Guardian) However, the more film resembles a video game, the more we can talk about killing without death. Bevan notes that in the game you can die and start again, but also in video games, and frequently in films, others are there as things in the way, something that needs to be removed. 

Speaking of violence in life and violence on the screen, the former SAS member Harry McCallion describes the first man he saw killed. “He was hit in the spine, the shock of the 7.62 full-jacketed round, travelling at nearly twice the speed of sound, lifting his entire body into the air…he hit the ground rolling, over and over, screaming in a high-pitched, almost child-like voice.” McCallion adds that the man who shot him “took on a look of unsurpassed glee. He threw a clenched fist into the air and said softly, ‘got him’.” (Screen Violence) McCallion describes a death but the man who shot him witnessed only a killing. When McCallion saw Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, it was the first time he felt cinema “started to produce films that portrayed something of the reality of my world.” (Screen Violence) Before the work of Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, before The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde, violence in cinema was usually shown but not quite depicted. People would be killed but the death would often be representatively perfunctory or allusive rather than explicit. Bogart merely shoots people dead with no blood to show for it in The Big Sleep. In Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, the allusive allows for a plot twist. A young woman, whose partner abroad sends her a letter saying he has found someone else, goes out and gets drunk with a playboy and believes she has killed him after he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The apparent killing is fragmentary and symbolic, as she fends him off, picks up a poker and a mirror breaks. She wakes up back at her apartment oblivious to the actions of the night before but in time assumes that she must be guilty of the playboy’s murder when she hears he is dead. By the end of the film, we discover that she is innocent: another woman, whom we saw at the beginning of the film, and was infatuated by the playboy, has killed him later that night and our heroine is innocent and free. The twist is clumsy and coincidental but what concerns us is that since films often adopted an indirect approach to the violent, it could be presented, retrospectively, as a minor act of aggression rather than a murder. 

If McCallion may have seen this is as a problem, awaiting a Sam Peckinpah to show killing on screen that began to resemble the deaths he saw on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, then at least the issue he had with the violent was its representational innocuousness. It was not especially with its ethical vacuity. While we are wary of making too much of the historical, when our focus is the affective, we can say with some confidence that classical cinema often gave import to the moral seriousness of a killing even it paid little attention to it as a biological fact. One didn’t expect to see a body with blood pouring out of punctured lungs, heart and thighs, nor did we assume that when someone was killed there would be a few seconds of the dead person twitching. Representational realism demanded the body die more graphically but many films of recent vintage have reversed the classical equation: instead of moral significance accompanying graphic absence; we have graphic presence accompanying moral absence. Viewers see close to what McCallion saw when he witnessed the murder in Northern Ireland, but they are expected to react with the indifference of his colleague. 

Some filmmakers present this combination ambivalently, aware of the affective impoverishment years of graphic presentation has created, but also fretting over the consequences of violence in the culture that they can at least show as consequential in a film: the immediate after-effect of a violent action. In A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg combines the cartoonish with the consequential; brutality meets morality. In the former film, a father who runs a diner in a small town kills a couple of thugs who come in and terrorise the place. Cronenberg sets the scene up as thoroughly generic: a mild-mannered man (Viggo Mortensen) minding his own business before being forced to show his mettle. After Mortensen has shown he is more than capable of taking on and taking out these properly hard men, Cronenberg cuts to the gooey after effect: one of them is lying on the ground, his cheek hanging off from the coffee pot Mortensen has utilised as a weapon after the villain pulled out a gun. There are few characters flatter than these two flunkies Cronenberg utilises but the director nevertheless shows killing has consequences, not only through the film as the rest of the story hinges on this moment, but also immediately. While the villain lies dying, the waitress sits shaking, her nerves as shot as the other villain’s body - a few bullet holes in him by the front door. Cronenberg gives us the content of the typical action scenario, though he insists on an element of the graphic that his work in horror is famous for providing: a prosthetic brilliance that demands showing that the body is a fragile thing.

In Eastern Promises, Mortensen plays a chauffeur in London, working for the Russian Mafia who late in the film gets attacked in the swimming baths while taking a sauna. The gangsters he takes on are fully dressed in black; Mortensen is fully naked while he tries to defend himself. Once again Cronenberg takes a standard sequence and gives it a twist that attends to the realities of the flesh. While Mortensen grapples with the pair of assassins, the wounds he receives are all the more pronounced as there is no clothing to hide them. His flesh which is covered with tattoos becomes doubly marked, a vivid blend of green ink and red blood. At the end of the scene, he finishes off one of the killers by putting a knife deep into the eye and twisting it around far beyond the eye socket. The sound design captures every twist of the blade. This is killing indeed but it is also a death acknowledged. There may be little humanity to the man he kills here, just as there was none to be seen in the killer whose face is hanging off in A History of Violence, but Cronenberg shows in both instances that killing is also death. It isn’t presented as a gag or an irrelevance. If we squirm when the knife goes in the eye we are, however momentarily, with the pain and not just Mortensen’s victory.  

In very different ways we see how two directors known for the violence of their work, insist that death accompanies killing; both Peckinpah and Cronenberg show they cannot be separated. However, while most films deal with killing over death (Peckinpah and Cronenberg are still chiefly in the films we have discussed concerned with dramatic death, despite a relative concern for the specifics involved in killing someone), people dying because their bodies defeat them is far more common than other people doing damage to them. (Cronenberg’s reputation of course has frequently rested on turning disease into horror drama.) A typical year for US Deaths would be 2,854,838 according to the CDC; while there would be 19,141 killings. Yet while this is a small number of killings next to the number of deaths, those killings are still high compared to those in many other nations, and the US has a very large number due to firearms. It makes a certain socio-ethnographic sense that US film is full of weaponry. The BBC notes that as a percentage of homicides, 73% are from guns in the US while in the UK it is 4%. Canada and Australia are relatively high (39% and 22% respectively) but still much lower than the States. What are we to make of such statistics? Maybe we can conclude from them that killing even in the US is an exceptional event and yet the high incidences of firearm deaths make it seem plausible that many an American film will focus on killing over death and gunfire will be the means of administering it. It may be relatively rare to die by homicide but if you are going to be murdered in the US there is a very good chance it will be at the end of a gun. In contrast, in the UK, “knives or other sharp objects were involved in 40 percent of homicides in England and Wales in 2019/20, the most of any method of killing.” (Statista) We wouldn’t want to stretch a point but is it more plausible that in A History of Violence, set in the States, the emphasis is on the gun being the weapon Mortensen uses, while the English-set Eastern Promises it is the knife? Sure, one of the thugs sticks a knife into Mortensen’s foot in the diner shootout in A History of Violence, which is why he hobbles around for much of the film thereafter, but the scene’s generic purpose and the horror of the witnesses come when a gun is waved around. Would it have seemed needless hyperbole if the killers in the bathhouse started shooting off rounds in Eastern Promises, while we can accept without questioning it a couple of killers coming into a small diner in the US and pulling out weaponry? 

Plausibility in film can be a complex thing that goes beyond the diegetic integrity of a work. Films are full of implausibilities, goofs and errors and a quick glance at Imdb’s list for Michael Mann’s Collateral suggests that a film can still work pretty well despite many of them. Whether it is cabbie Max convincing his mother that he is a limo driver even though his mother has phoned him at work on various occasions, which would reveal his place of employment, or when “after Vincent was shot for the first time by Max, his jacket was torn at the shoulder. In the next scene there is no tear” (Imdb), films are full of elements that could suspend our suspension of disbelief. But not all errors are of the same magnitude and some are merely improbable while others are erroneous. Maybe when the mother phones all she has is a number Max has given her and when the person answers they offer a name and not the name of the company, or the name of the company doesn’t reveal it is a cab firm rather than a limo one. It is merely a questionable error; It isn’t what we could call a categorical mistake, while the tear on the sleeve is. But the categorical error is so negligible that it hardly demands attention while the film’s account of the mother might suggest a weak development of character. Though categorical errors are common they are the sort of mistakes that could have been rectified easily enough if anybody had noticed them, like typos in a document. Questionable errors often raise more structural issues and may require another draft, even a rethinking of the whole project if grave enough. It wouldn’t be a categorical error to have the two killers coming into the bathhouse and taking out a group of swimmers and sauna visitors with AK-47s but it seems much more terrifyingly plausible that they would come in and attack Mortensen with knives. “We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script,” Cronenberg says. “The choice of those curved knives we use in the steam bath was mine. They’re not some kind of exotic Turkish knives, they’re linoleum knives. I felt that these guys could walk around in the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say 'we’re linoleum cutters.' And it’s almost like they are using their knives to re-tattoo Nikolai and change his identity by changing the marks on his skin.” (Film Comment) It is as though the logic of the milieu would have been lost because Cronenberg makes clear this is a country where guns aren’t everywhere. There may have been categorical errors in the bath scene as Imdb notes: “...when Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) walks toward the camera with Azim, you can clearly see on Viggo's left shoulder the Elvish tattoo he got while in New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings shooting (the tattoo is "nine" in Elvish Tengwar writing).” But it seems of no importance next to the error of judgement that would have been made in a shootout instead of a knife fight. Cronenberg comprehends that cultural specifics matter when it comes to filming violence. 

Often if we feel a realist aspect in the context of violent action it rests on the film acknowledging that killing is but a small percentage of the deaths that actually take place: that killing someone is an exceptional deed. The same verisimilitude in the context of death more generally is how mundane it is, how common an occurrence. In the UK, the population is 66 million and the death rate about 600,000 a year according to Statista. That means 1 in every 110 people die each year, and if, as Andrew Gelman in New York Times claims, “the average American knows around 600 people”, then that means everyone probably knows several people a year who will die. We needn’t get too lost in statistics: the point is simple and obvious — a killing is an exceptional event and death frequent. It is thus also very understandable that if drama seeks the exception rather than the rule, the occasional over the everyday, murder would be much more common in film and death infrequent. If Hitchcock so famously said that his films weren’t a slice of life but a slice of cake, then many a filmmaker could claim their films are slabs of homicide, murderous outings so common that even to use the word murder to describe the killings in films like John Wick 3 seems beside the point. Murder and homicide suggest the dreadfully occasional but in film they are so frequent that the word killing more accurately captures the nature of the deaths on screen. Perhaps murder and homicide also indicate the procedural and investigative, and if every film showing people killed had to offer not only a funeral but also a criminal inquiry, then would we have a curtailment of cinematic spree-killing? 

But enough of the murderous in its various manifestations; even in film there is space for other terrible manifestations of the grim reaper: cancer, heart disease, strokes, pneumonia, HIV. If generally many a film about killing falls generically into the horror, gangster, film noir, the western and action film, even if we find it often enough elsewhere in black comedy, science fiction and even the musical (ChicagoCabaretWest Side Story) then what about death by more natural causes? There is often in the HIV narrative a sense of a life cut short, a belief that the beautiful die young not because they have lived a recklessly criminal life but a passionately vivid one. The films are frequently romantic works within the sociological, aware that between the late seventies and early nineties people were not just dying but dying prejudicially, that the ‘gay plague’ was somehow an individual’s fault for being homosexual. “AIDS was labelled the ‘gay plague”, suggesting that it was spread among men who had sex with men (MSM). For about six months in 1982, the condition was mistakenly labelled Gay Related Immune Deficiency.' In total, 35 million people have died of AIDs worldwide since the 1980s, including millions in Africa.” (Independent) There was also “the reluctance of the law – and society more generally – to engage with gay sex lead[ing] to what some have called the desexualised “homonormative” sexual identity – a gay identity that is said to assimilate in order to gain equal status and privileges within a society in which heterosexuality is assumed, unquestioned, and dominant.” (The Conversation) French cinema has perhaps been especially adept at exploring the subject in films that include Savage NightsThe WitnessesSorry, Angel, and 120 Beats Per Minute. To say anything intelligent on the subject would probably require an essay in itself but the films can move from the all but autobiographical (Savage Nights) to the broadly sociological, 120 Beats Per Minute. Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights focuses on a reckless bi-sexual filmmaker who is HIV and still lives without thinking through the consequences upon others. Though the character within the film does not die at the end, Collard himself was dead by the time of its US release in March 1993.

It is very common for a filmmaker to create a character who dies while obviously the filmmaker lives, but in Savage Nights the reverse is the case: as though we read the character’s imminent demise through the death of the director who made the film. Many other films made by queer directors are ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim’ works — the filmmakers have outlived friends and lovers whose lives they acknowledge in the work that they make, outliving too the heroes they would have loved to meet. Interviewed over Sorry, Angel, director Christophe Honore says: “At the very heart of this scenario is sincerity and truth. I tried to get close to a feeling of youth, to be close to this guy in his early twenties for whom I have a memory. At the same time, I offer him a fiction, a story he did not live—which is something I suffer from today.” Honore adds, “this is where the “today” appears—that is, if I embarked on this film it is because I’m inconsolable today as a filmmaker and writer who was never able to cross paths with the idols from my youth. I was never able to meet the homosexual artists who were especially important to me during the ’90s..." - as he names Herve Guibert, Bernard-Marie Koltès, Jacques Demy, Serge Daney and Cyril Collard .” (Film Comment) It is a tradition of pain and viral loss that 120 Beats Per Minute director, Robin Campillo, sees is very different from that of the Nouvelle vague: “Being a director seemed pointless to me. The French New Wave is cinema for healthy people. You don’t have people with disease in a film by Godard, not at all I think. People die but only because they have an accident: a hard, quick death, not because they have a disease.” (Guardian)

In this sense, the Nouvelle vague showed killing rather than death, with Michel in Breathless and Nana in Vivre sa vie gunned down. Les cousins ends on a shooting, and Les Bonnes Femmes on a murder, and so on. Campillo sees Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5-7 as exceptional in its focus on the central character awaiting the result from cancer tests: a film about beauty curtailed by disease and not by a gun. From this point of view, AIDS gave to cinema a narrative aspect too rarely accessed, a way of dying young without adopting the murderous. This may sound like a very flippant approach to a virus that led so many to die but Campillo’s claim is that all those new wave killings were very removed from most people’s lives. In 2018, the number of homicides for France was 779. (Knoema) In 2017, the number of AIDS deaths was 500, according to Statista. That means even now, with the threat of terrorism never more paramount, and deaths from AIDS clearly diminishing, HIV deaths are still reasonably close to homicides. Yet how many more films and TV series even in France have shown people murdered, over dying of not just AIDS but any number of other diseases? Sure, French cinema isn’t known for its capacity for violence but there are plenty thriller and action films glorifying death that go far beyond whatever problems Campillo may have had with the Nouvelle vague. Near the end of the gruesome French crime thriller Let the Corpses Tan, the film offers an extreme close-up of a gun in someone’s mouth before the murderer pulls the trigger and the shot blows a hole through the back of his head. It is the sort of gratuitous action that some think might even be influencing crime itself. As a Colombian drug dealer talking about the drug violence in Marbella says: “That’s really whose fault it is: all the TV shows and movies that lure young people to this world, thinking they’re going to get rich.” (Guardian) We hear often enough how screen violence impacts on actual killings but, while we must be wary of such cause and effect (especially when offered by a gangster looking to offload blame), nevertheless it is quite a thing when the gangsters themselves are fretting over the consequences of violence on film and TV. By making films about disease over homicide, filmmakers can seek drama and death without putting bullet holes in their characters. One website (ArdentGrowth) lists the various kill-counts of big stars, with Samuel L. Jackson top of the list (1734) and Keanu Reeves with a lot of catching up to do: a mere 387. Whatever the actual number, there is a whole lot of killing going on, and Jackson, at least, isn’t hypocritical in his attitude to guns. “The actor…has spoken out against gun control and revealed he carries a weapon that he would not hesitate to use against a burglar.” (Guardian) Keanu Reeves similarly is wary of gun control: “when it comes to violence in his own movies, the star of the Matrix films said he was "not going to be frivolous with it", but also said he did not think a film could be linked to violent crimes committed.” (BBC) The gangster might disagree, and who would we be more inclined to believe; actors who make a fortune out of onscreen death or a gangster who sees the consequences of taking out lives when killing is seen as entertainment? 

One needn’t view this as a call for censorship; more a demand for imagination and empathy, for closing the gap between film violence and reality not by banning anything but by asking why filmmakers don’t pay more attention to death in its various manifestations - rather than chiefly through pumping holes into people. Cries and WhispersMother and Son and Amour are all very fine films about dying and find in the deaths they explore what we could call a slow thematic over a quick dramatic enactment. In all three films, the spaces of death aren’t backdrops but integrated into the narration, while in many a killing the murder takes place indifferently: it could be a motorway, a side street, a bar or a restaurant, in a car or on a motorbike. In Bergman, Sokurov and Haneke’s films, however, the space the characters occupy as they go to their deaths is integral. Speaking of Amour, Michael Haneke says that “the floor plan of this apartment is the floor plan of my parent’s apartment – reconstructed according to a French style of interior decoration, of course – but other than that it corresponds to the setup of my parent’s apartment almost precisely.”(AFC) Set almost entirely within the one setting, Amour shows us a large Parisian flat that the two main characters appear to have lived in for many years, and all around the flat are signs of their accumulated lives. Anne becomes very ill after first one stroke and then another, and is paralysed down one side. Her husband Georges looks after her but there is little sense that her health will improve and we watch the film expecting her demise to be imminent. Yet Haneke provocatively brings killing into death when near the end of the film Georges firmly puts a pillow over his wife’s face and suffocates her. Does he do it out of anger, frustration or compassion; is it not a combination of all three? He knows her life is over and that he is near the end of his own, but he seems also at the end of his tether, which leads to the killing, an almost impulsive desire to end her life aware that the continuation of it will be of little value to her and of only continual irritation to him? 

Haneke’s is not a cold film but it insists on showing deterioration, a bodily reality for many of us if we are not to be one of the very few who die in an accident or a victim of homicide. “The focus is unrelentingly upon degeneration, and the way in which ideals bound up with personhood are affected by the physical fading of a person’s body. The emotional drama of Amour," Chris Fenwick says, "does not arise from foreknowledge of our own death, but from the death – or, more accurately, the gradual disappearance – of another. It is about age and the process of dying, about what comes just before Death, hypostatized as the black sun from which we turn our gaze. Death itself is not a taboo subject, but dying is.” (Lexipenia) Yet partly what is so troublesome about Haneke’s film is that Anne doesn’t die peacefully in her sleep but fighting ferociously for existence in the moment that she is suffocated. Her husband kills her and there is nothing to suggest that Anne would want it otherwise; though equally there is nothing to indicate that this is what she wants. There is not enough of Anne left for such a decision to be made; her deterioration going beyond autonomy and thus Georges removes her life without her consent. Yet in the abruptness of the gesture, in the impulsiveness of the deed, Georges might not seem quite himself either. Most films about killing show the characters very much themselves but the places they occupy when they are killed as often unimportant, Haneke proposes that if for much of the film Anne isn’t quite there, while Georges is a character we cannot quite figure out because, for most of the film, we see him in extreme situations trying to cope with his wife’s illness, nevertheless we have a clear sense of the apartment in which they live and how that space reflects thoughts and feelings rather than they themselves as characters living typical lives. The film explores them at an atypical moment but shows a space that seems very much their own. In a scene late in the film, Haneke cuts to a series of landscape paintings, viewed in close-up. They are paintings Georges and Anne have up on their walls but why does Haneke show them so specifically? Perhaps because they are part of a life that in some ways is greater than the biological even if, and maybe more especially because, they are inanimate. The erosion of time that works so fiercely on the body works much more slowly on objects and so at what point do the objects represent us more than we represent ourselves? When at the end of the film, their daughter returns to an empty apartment, the flat is only empty of Anne and Georges. The paintings are still on the walls; the books on the shelves, the records and CDs too. There are numerous traces of a life lived but no life left to live within them. 

The apartment is now liminal; not quite the daughter’s as she wanders through it surrounded by her parents’ objects, but no longer the parents’ since we can assume that they are no longer alive. This is an assumption of course because we don’t know for sure what happened to Georges — at the beginning of the film, the authorities break in and discover Anne dead; there is no sign of her husband as those who find Anne cover their mouths at the smell of the decomposing body. When their daughter goes into the flat at the end of the film there is no such smell and no sign of life. If we note the importance of the spaces occupied by the dying in Amour, Cries and Whispers and Mother and Son, then Amour makes this formally manifest in terrible terms. At the beginning, a body is found and the smell unequivocal; during the film we watch Georges taking care of his wife as she becomes terminally ill, and the film concludes with the smell gone but the couple absent too. The perishable has perished. 

In Mother and Son, the title characters are the only people in the film while director Alexander Sokurov locates them within a landscape which dwarfs the house they are in. If the landscapes we see on the walls of the apartment in Amour are contained by the four walls of the flat, in Mother and Son, the four walls of the house are contained by the landscape that encompasses it. The title characters in Sokurov’s film are more inclined to leave the house than Anne and Georges but this is for a commune with nature, while at the beginning of Amour, Anne and Georges go to a concert. There are so many people in the early scene in Amour that it takes a moment to pick the couple out from the crowd. In Mother and Son, the pair are sometimes small within the frame, not because of others but due to the natural environment that shrinks them in the image. Using distorted lenses, Sokurov offers us a contorted view of nature but at all times indicates that our being is contained by its vastness. It is a work of consolation as Haneke’s is a work of disturbance, as though the paintings within the house can outlive the couple in Amour but only because they are objects. They do not perish as subjects do but they cannot be left to continue unattended as nature can. One senses in Mother and Son the mother who dies at the end will become part of the soil, a life briefly lived against a nature that will continue for millennia. In Amour, death is an inconvenience, something that gets in way of living but Haneke is aware of the urban lives we lead that pushes death very far away and where its calling becomes a problem. After Anne’s stroke, the apparatus of illness is deployed: a wheelchair, a special mattress, a drip and a nurse. These are the accoutrements of a slow, modern urban demise and they are the best we can hope for to alleviate the pain and discomfort of dying. There are no such accoutrements in Sokurov’s film. He shows us a tranquil death with neither immense pain nor innumerable medical interruptions. 

Clearly, this doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to die stoically; Sokurov’s film reduces the mother’s death to its most fundamental: to a woman dying within an environment to which she will return all the better to emphasise the most basic reality of a human life contained by all that is non-human. Speaking to Paul Schrader, Sokurov said: “I think that what always interests me is just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience: the feelings of farewells and separations. I think that the drama of death is the drama of separation.” (Reflection and Film) Haneke has often been a director interested in the intricate hassles of a busy urban existence, the clutter that makes up a life, including the difficulties the returning journalist has getting into an apartment in Code Inconnu, the petty irritations that can lead to murderousness in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, and the street confrontation in Hidden, when Georges almost collides with a cyclist and gets into an argument with the other man. Haneke approaches death as yet another intrusion on a person’s urban existence, yet another nuisance. It is as though the good life is supposed to remove the various inconveniences but where being urban is to be in the midst of them. Casting a great actor of irritation, Jean-Louis Trintignant, in the role of Georges, we see a man who is committed to his wife’s well-being while also annoyed by any number of deeds large and small, from a pigeon in the hallway, to a nurse who doesn’t know how to look after his wife properly. 

Cries and Whispers feels like a film halfway between Amour and Mother and Son, a late nineteenth-century story whose first half focuses on the physical pain of one sister, Agnes as she dies. In the second, Bergman focuses on the spiritual anguish of the two other sisters who are so haunted by her demise that Bergman offers a dream sequence near the end, showing them expressing a mixture of disgust and guilt over their sister’s cancerous death. If Haneke shows paintings on the wall, and Sokurov shows through the landscapes the clear influence of romanticism (“its stunning visuals of idyllic countryside and misty forests, deeply informed, as most critics noted, by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich” says Jeremi Szaniawski in Senses of Cinema), then Bergman shows in Cries and Whispers the unequivocal influence of Munch. He also suggests the presence of Klimt and Rothko on the work as well — as websites including Bright Wall Dark Room and Lights in the Dusk have noticed. “All my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, it says that red represents for me the interior of the soul.” (Images) Bergman might be exaggerating just how little colour means to his work, and its importance to The Passion of Anna, in its use of yellow and red, is far from insignificant. But Cries and Whispers is his most painterly film and critics have astutely noticed not only Munch’s ‘Death in the Sickroom’ but also Klimt’s ‘Ria Munk on Her Deathbed’ and ‘No. 14, 1960’ by Rothko. Like Amour and Mother and Son, it has absorbed within it an aesthetic of stillness, the fixed frame of painting utilised for its capacity to indicate the contemplative in the moving image. 

We might wonder if painting lends itself much better to death than to killing, that though there are artists like Francis Bacon who captures the kinetic violence of destruction, Picasso, whose ‘Guernica’ depicts the bombing of the titular town, or Goya, whose ‘The Third of May 1808’, shows Spanish resistance to Napoleon as fighters are shot, painting can usually give to filmmakers a reflective sense of death rather than the active approach of homicidal forces. In Cries and Whispers, Bergman nevertheless shows that death is both physical and mental, a failure of the body that may be caused by a rebellion of the cells but also a failure of the mind when someone doesn’t know how to live even if they have been given the health to continue doing so. At least Agnes dies because of her body and not her brain. Bergman interestingly wonders, paraphrasing Arthur Koestler, if “the human brain is like a cancer. Thousands and thousands of years ago something happened in the head of a monkey. Over his perfect little brain another brain started to produce cells like a cancer.” (Ingmar Bergman Interviews) This is our brain and it gives us civilisation, of sorts. One might assume that of the three sisters it is Agnes (Harriet Andersson) who might best know how to live, perhaps evident in her claim at the end of the film as the work flashes back to her walking with her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann). She talks about how happy she is in the sunlight, her illness not yet apparent, or at least not so advanced that she is reduced to her bed as she is in the other earlier scenes in which we see her before she dies. Karin is suicidal and Maria apparently callous, with Karin tearing her labia with a piece of glass, a gesture that seems to tell her husband that sex is out of the question but also that her life is an impossible question as well. She has always envied her younger sister Maria and it seems Maria is more inclined to generate pain in others rather than suffer it herself. She cheats on her husband with a doctor and while Bergman keeps from us the details of the affair and how the husband found out, we do see him stabbing himself in the chest. He survives, and Maria remains married while still desiring the doctor (Erland Josephson). The elliptical approach the film takes to the husband’s despair is in keeping with Maria seeing it as nothing more than a trifle, though it is obviously more than that. 

With self-harm and suicide attempts, Bergman indicates death permeating the material by referencing too the maid Anna’s (Kari Sylwan) loss. The film shows that she lost a young daughter and Anna seems to have no husband and no other children. When she is turned out of the house after Agnes dies, given a small sum of money, it is as though we grieve for her as she no doubt has grieved for her child, the grief she will now feel all over again having lost her place in the family household, and will leave properly isolated. 

Bergman’s brilliance is taking what could have been a maudlin story of a forty-year-old woman’s death and turns it into an encompassing account of death’s constant and varying presence. While a couple of years before Bergman’s film Love Story could become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time with a story of a young woman dying of leukemia, Arthur Hiller’s film calibrates itself as a weepie, a death that is the exception which proves the rule and that can allow all the grieving to go into the one twenty-five-year-old woman’s passing. Bergman, that great director of death in so many of its manifestations, insists that it becomes a constant presence, a temporal fact of our existence. Throughout Cries and Whispers, Bergman emphasises the sound of a grandfather clock, an acoustic reminder of our mortality as each second that passes brings us closer to our end. We will die one way or another but Bergman also wonders how one should live. The way Maria and Karin treat Anna after Agnes’s death shows they have little care or compassion even if Maria in her desire to be liked offers a few gestures of gratitude as a parting gift. 

What matters for Bergman is that any physical examination must contain within it a psychological enquiry; that Cries and Whispers interestingly gives us little sense of Agnes’s past but fills out Karin and Maria’s. Andersson noted, in an interview on the DVD extras, that she didn’t know if Agnes had ever married or whether she had been sick since childhood. It doesn’t really matter, since Agnes’s illness needn’t be found in case studying her psychology, while Maria’s possible malignant narcissism and Karin’s depression are sicknesses of the soul that Bergman can explore around Agnes’s biological despair. It isn’t uncommon for a film to focus on the various hassles and irritations within a family dealing with loss. Whether it is Marvin’s Room or Terms of EndearmentLove Story or My Life Without You, the deaths are contained by the permutations of the living. In Terms of Endearment, the mother and her recent lover break up while the daughter is dying of cancer; in Marvin’s Room, a father is incapacitated and bed-ridden and the daughter who looks after him herself is told she has leukemia. Her semi-estranged sister finally comes to realise that she must look after the family, while also dealing with a pyromaniac son. There are often hassles aplenty in films of terminal illness even if the through-line is clear enough, and the emotional heft usually comes from the dying or the dead. Yet they don't seem permeated by death. Bergman's film does. 

One reason why we have focused on AmourMother and Son and Cries and Whispers as masterful films of death, is that they don’t just say that life is a complicated business with death interrupting. (A great work exploring this without the sentimentality we often find in Love Story etc., is Maurice Pialat’s The Mouth Agape.) They give death a metaphysical import that finds a correlative to the kinetic force of films focused on killing. We might fret over the number of homicides in film, but we have to accept that there have been so many masterful works that show people killed. Who would prefer Love Story, Marvin’s Room and Terms of Endearment to The Wild BunchBonnie and ClydeTaxi Driver, to The GodfatherApocalypse Now and Point Blank? The brilliance of many a murderous work often far outweighs the quality of most terminal illness films, and we might wonder why. A proper answer would lie in another essay altogether but a partial one may rest on the ontology of film as a medium of action. Someone lying in bed for much of the film might not seem like a proper use of the art form. But someone lying in bed who contains within them, through the form the film takes, a far greater existence than their own, can give to the work a texture that eschews the maudlin. All three films (AmourMother and SonCries and Whispers) are somehow indifferent to death not at all of course because of the indifference they feel towards the dying; more because they create a perspective that asks questions beyond the demise they focus upon. When Haneke says that he more or less recreated his parents’ apartment, shifting the locale from Vienna to Paris, we might wonder why; what fidelity to the accumulation of their life did he want to register by insisting on such faithfulness to interior design? He shows us the texture of a life lived while showing us at the same time someone dying; it is this texture that is rarely shown in films about killing as it is the arrangement of subjects and not objects that take prominence. As Stephen Prince notes, as he looks at Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Penn and most especially Sam Peckinpah to see how they structure the violence and how important multi-camera set-ups were to Kurosawa and Peckinpah’s work: killing is often a logistically impressive kinetic event. “Time slows, stretches, folds around on itself and becomes a fourth dimension.” (Screening Violence

The sort of death we find in AmourMother and Son and Cries and Whispers is based much more on stillness: the accretion rather than secretion of a life; the body falling apart amongst the objects that will remain. In violent films, objects are collateral damage, blown to pieces alongside the bodies, usually impersonal items that needn’t concern us and haven’t especially concerned the characters either. But the houses the characters in Amour etc. are dying in are homes that may be preserved after their death and thus they show not the equivalence of objects and subjects in the process of destruction, but the gap between the perishable and preservable and hence a proper sense of time in the image. 

In its simplest fomulation, killing is about space and death is about time. The great films of the former often make very complex the structure of that space, as we find in Bonnie and ClydeThe Wild BunchThe Godfather and The French Connection. The three great films of death that we have looked at are marvellous examinations of time, shrinking the locale and making the characters disappear into the spaces that have contained them. To have shown the characters going to hospital would have obliterated the aesthetic. When Anne returns from the hospital that Haneke has elided, she says that Georges must promise not to allow her to go back there and Haneke has been even more true to her desire by refusing to show her there in the first place. 

The purpose here hasn’t been to insist on the value of death over killing on film, even if we might fret over just how many people are taken out on screen; more to muse over how, whether focusing on homicide or on terminal illness, each has its own aesthetic properties that give credence to a life lost. If death is part of our lives, even if our own cannot be included, since when we are dead we are no longer part of the life that will continue, it surely deserves due respect. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as our death. We can say so many things with the attribute of I, from I am ill, I am sick, I am tired, I am hungry, I am sad and so on. But we cannot say I am dead. That can only be said of others: it is the inalienability of death. To acknowledge this fact, that death is always happening to somebody else, allows for the terrible cynicism of so many works that think nothing of taking out various onscreen lives. But the great works just somehow manage to indicate that there is a hint of alienability to the mortally lost.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Death and Killing on Film

The Demise in Its Various Manifestations

Watching Nomadland one is aware of death in cinema. Both the central character's husband in the past and her friend in the present die; they are not killed. It is an important distinction and one pressing in contemporary American film where many are killed but few die. To be killed is to exist and be extinguished without consequence; to die is to give significance to death. When the philosopher Peter Singer wonders in Practical Ethics whether it matters if one chicken dies to be replaced by another since it appears the fowl have no consciousness to call their own, we might fret over Singer's claims, and will return to them later, but see in the remarks a useful analogy to how numerous characters are killed on film.

In Nomadland, the central character Fern's (Frances McDormand) husband has died before the film starts, and this is partly why she has taken to the road, while before the end of the film her friend Swankie will pass away, with the nomads of the title, including Fern, devoting an evening to her memory. Swankie dies of cancer but we don't want simply to say that people who pass away of natural causes and those who are killed often at the end of the gun are necessary dichotomies in terms of feeling. A violent director like Sam Peckinpah can seem very much on the side of killing but within his murderous aesthetic there is often too an acknowledgement of death. Maximilian Le Cain may be right to say "few films can be as saturated with death as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The tone is set from the inspired opening scene, which inter-cuts Billy and his gang shooting chickens with the murder of Pat Garrett years later. There are one or two action scenes in the traditional sense, but the vast majority of the killings are dealt with in a perfunctory style." (Sense of Cinema) Yet we need only think of the elegiac scene in Pat Garrett where Pat's friend Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) gets killed by members of Billy's old gang and wants to die by the river. Baker is a minor character in the film but he is given a significant death. He stumbles towards the water and his wife (Katy Jurado) drops her rifle even if the shoot-out continues elsewhere. As we see the roof of the house in a high-angle medium long shot from above, Baker in the distance and his wife moving towards him, so we also hear Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' on the soundtrack. When we see Baker down by the river, Peckinpah films from the other side of the water with his wife a few metres behind him, before cutting to a low-angle shot of his wife looking distraught. We then cut to Baker clutching his stomach before we cut back to Mrs Baker crying, aware her husband is moments away from death. The film then offers us once again the long shot we earlier saw from the high-angle above the roof. Peckinpah was undeniably a director known for the violence he depicted but he also sometimes showed within that killing the awareness of death and was willing to give time, attention and form to depicting it.

Peckinpah has often been invoked by critics looking at genealogical comparisons for the John Wick series, with Neil Morris talking of the "exquisite brutality of Sam Peckinpah." (Indyweek.com) However, for our purposes a film like John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is a variation of Singer's comment about non-sentient animals and whether we should eat them. Singer says "although meat-eaters are responsible for the death of the animal they eat and for the loss of pleasure experienced by that animal, they are also responsible for the creation of more animals, since if no one ate meat there would be no more animals bred for fattening...we may call this the "replaceability argument'". (Practical Ethics) We don't wish to be overly ingenious and might add that Singer offers an argument that as a vegetarian he wouldn't be inclined to insist upon personally. Yet there is something provocative here that can help us comprehend

how many films use characters the way the food industry makes assumptions about non-sentient beings that it wouldn't make about sentient ones. "For a non-self-conscious being, death is the cessation of experiences, in much the same way that birth is the beginning of experiences. Death cannot be contrary to an interest in continued life, and more than birth could be in accordance with an interest in commencing life. To this extent, with non- self-conscious life, birth and death cancel each other out; whereas with self-conscious beings the fact that once self-conscious one may desire to continue living means that death inflicts a loss for which the birth of another is insufficient compensation." (Practical Ethics) Singer doesn't claim certain animals don't have sentience; he is just wondering if a creature doesn't, whether some might see it as a fair argument for using them for meat if you also make sure that the death is as painless as possible.

However, our purpose isn't to embroil ourselves in Singer's ethical arguments concerning the food industry but to take an aspect of his claim to comprehend something about the film industry. Imagine if film replaces the unsentient with the unfeeling, regarding numerous characters in film as devoid of a full range of humanity that has to be acknowledged. Imagine a variation of E. M. Forster's famous notion of round and flat characters reconfigured instead as round and flattened ones. Round characters Forster says, "expand and secrete", possessing a complexity that needs constant attention, while flat characters are very useful for the author: "since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere little luminous discs of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void..." (Aspects of the Novel) The round characters in many contemporary films will be the heroes and heroines who have to work their way through the story. Though some might baulk at the notion that they are round as the examples Forster gives are round (figures from Dostoyevsky's novels, Tolstoy's War and Peace and numerous characters from In Search of Lost Time), narratively they are round as others are flattened. They function within the context of a cinematic "replaceability argument."

Austin Powers amusingly offers a variation on such a position when someone in the first film makes a phone call announcing that a woman has been widowed: her husband, in the employ of the dastardly Dr Evil, has been eaten by a bass-eating shark. There is nothing new cinematically in such a death but there is something facetiously new in making clear that even henchmen have families. A flattened character has briefly been allowed a little roundness, a moment that recognises his status as a human being. In Austin Powers it is a joke at the expense of many a Bond film, films that find elaborate ways to kill inconsequential characters Austin Powers offers a few seconds of consequence. But imagine if Hollywood cinema had to provide a burial scene for every character it took out, how long the film might become or how a filmmaker would have to think twice before killing yet another flattened figure. In John Wick 3, near the beginning of the film Wick doesn't just escape from the building, he kills his way out of it. That may sound an odd use of a verb: if we say he fought his way out it might sound more appropriate to the ear but it wouldn't come close to describing the mayhem involved. Whether it is this moment early in the film when a $14m dollar bounty is put on his head, midway through when he is in Casablanca, or near the end of the film when he takes out various henchmen to get at the main man, Wick is a killing machine amongst death machines: that Wick's purpose is to kill and it is the purpose of those he comes into contact with to die. They don't have lives but only deaths, which is why we needn't give them any more concern than we might an object in Wick's way. They are living because they are dying, as we hear bones break, throats gargle and numerous cries of momentary pain.

The John Wick movies may be influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville films as critics have noted, and the series even makes a nod to Melville's work with a nightclub called the Red Circle (after Melville's Le cercle rouge). But if we take into account a remark Roger Ebert makes when reviewing Melville's Le samourai, we can see that, though the Wick films and Melville's are hitmen movies, that is where the comparison ought to end. "The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense how action releases tension, instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don't care about are happening constantly." (Rogerebert.com) Ebert also says that, "Melville uses character, not action, to build suspense", while we might say that John Wick uses action, not character, to release it. It is constantly releasing tension it hasn't yet built and relies on pushing perspective to compensate for the impoverishment of its patience. The big word here is, as David Bordwell notes in The Way Hollywood Tells It, 'energy'. "A fast cutting rate, the bipolar extremes of lens lengths, a reliance on tight singles, and the free-ranging camera are salient marks of intensified continuity." Or as a directing manual from the early 2000s proposed, "a good objective for any first time director would be to move his camera as much as possible to look as hip and MTV-wise as he can." (The Way Hollywood Tells It)

If we are to distinguish between killing and death in film, then perhaps Ebert's formula has its uses and we can expand upon it; that if it is character, not action, that builds suspense, can 'empty' action be suspenseful? An empty action would be one where no life is lost, where an empty building gets destroyed for the sake of spectacle, say, or where the lives lost are of no concern to the viewer. Some may claim that the many killings in John Wick 3 needn't undermine the tension the film generates; that what matters is that we follow Wick's quest and therein lies the suspense. But that is only so if Wick is in danger and while the film of course constantly puts him in dangerous situations, they are only perceived as such if we believe Wick is at risk. When a character happens to be in the midst of a film series of which he is the eponymous figure, and when we have seen him at the beginning of John Wick 3 taking on a large number of people all of whom he kills, then where is the suspense going to come from; where is the sense of danger likely to reside? As though aware of this problem, the film replaces suspense with ingenuity when we see early on, for example, Wick using a horse's legs to kick an opponent in the face. It is a very clever way of showing the myriad methods Wick has of taking out his victims but it isn't the same as suspense even if ingenuity could indeed be part of it. If Wick had been cornered without a weapon in a stable while a man comes after him with a machete, and we know that the horse, when frightened in a particular way, kicks its legs in the air, but we don't know if Wick knows, that would be suspense, however cheap. We wait to find out if Wick will, by accident or design, have the horse kick the man with the machete in the face and thus Wick can escape. But such a sequence would have to be built while in John Wick sequences are usually engineered: that an engineered scene is pretty close to what the MTV style quoted above demands. The camera is constantly creating 'energy' but not suspense since the sequence hasn't been built at all. Clearly, few filmmakers were greater masterbuilders than Hitchcock but numerous directors from Melville to Peckinpah, Polanski to Friedkin, have master-built on occasion.

Even in one of Peckinpah's lesser films and one that bears a few plot similarities with John Wick 3, the director shows he can build rather than engineer a sequence and relies on a sense of character to do so. Fifteen minutes into The Killer Elite, George Hansen takes out a client with a silencer while his friend and colleague Mike Locken obliviously takes a shower in the room next door. Hansen has no reason to worry since Hansen is his mate but the killing suggests he ought to be very worried indeed as Hansen has just murdered the client for no apparent reason and we see the man's brains splatter against the wall. As Mike exits the shower, Hansen is sitting waiting for him with the gun in his hand and Mike sees it as joke we are more inclined to be worried for Mike than Mike will be for himself since we have seen George take out the operative while all Mike will have seen of George is camaraderie over the years that we too have briefly shared in the film's opening minutes. For the viewer, such moments will be weak next to the murder we have just witnessed but strong for Mike who has years of friendship and no knowledge yet of the murder. If Hitchcock often saw that suspense rested on the audience knowing more than the character, then this is indeed an example of suspense. But it is also full suspense: that it relies on someone acting out of character for the tension to be generated. Here we have an apparent friend suddenly turning into a cruel enemy as Hansen shoots George in the elbow and the knee.

One can even claim that the suspense has been built not only within the story but beyond the diegesis as well. James Caan plays Mike and Robert Duvall Hansen; they had appeared in films together several times before (Countdown, The Rain People, The Godfather) and so showing them as friends early on would be augmented by a back catalogue of possible diegetic familiarity too. It is also a suspense sequence that impacts enormously on the story: Caan must recover from his injuries and find out why his friend betrayed him. Some watching the sequence may see a lack of 'energy' as Peckinpah offers almost no action since the operative murdered and Mike are helplessly at the mercy of Hansen, and Peckinpah uses minimal extraneous cutting to develop the scene. The film offers one moving insert shot as it looks like Mike might go for his gun, sitting on a table by the shower, but Hansen gives him no chance to go for it. Here suspense is very much character, with the human complexity more important than the cinematically ingenious.

We may note too that Peckinpah's continuing theme throughout his work was that of friendship and betrayal, and what mattered usually was that the action be contained by that preoccupation. This sequence from The Killer Elite may be from a minor Peckinpah work but it still contains a density of thought and feeling absent from the properly empty action of John Wick 3. Even though the operative has a very minor role he has several lines of dialogue, enquires about his status, and says that he has heard that the CIA-affiliated firm has never lost the life of anybody they have been protecting. Mike says they have; but George corrects him saying that this individual hanged himself. That George goes on to kill this client nevertheless suggests that it isn't a casual thing: the single death sets the whole story in motion. In John Wick 3 the death isn't singular, it is manifold: a series of more or less faceless people determined to kill him for the bounty. If we can say that were every film death to be attended by a funeral that would slow the killing down, by a less facetious reckoning if film had to see each death as singular, where the existence, motive and purpose of the person killed had to be acknowledged, then the death rate might too be a lot more modest.

It could seem provocative using Peckinpah as the model for modest mayhem given the relatively hefty body count in his work. But usually the deaths he shows are characterised or collateralised: they are given either existential weight, however briefly as we find in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Killer Elite, or the film acknowledges how somebody who hasn't been given that momentary existential weight is caught in the chaos of a skirmish never more evident than at the beginning of The Wild Bunch. Now perhaps some might say that it is a little unfair to start in the midst of a series of films and that the first John Wick opens less aggressively than the third, with Wick getting over his wife's death from cancer as he bonds with a dog that will be cruelly killed by Russian gangsters. However, what interests us fundamentally is the difference between death and killing in film and that Peckinpah, despite a reputation for sadistic violence, even exploitative violence, isn't a director of mindless killing but mindful death. Roger Ebert may say of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs that, "the violence is the movie's reason for existing; it is the element that is being sold, and in today's movie market, It should sell well." (Rogerebert.com) Next to John Wick 3 though it seems the violence is very calibrated indeed, and far more psychologically pertinent.

The aggression Straw Dogs builds towards is paranoiacally developed as David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mathematician with a beautiful and desirable young wife, Amy (Susan George), whom the locals covet and who was herself originally from the town. Peckinpah doesn't create complex secondary characterisation, that is for sure, but he does insist that milieu is filled out and that the characters killed aren't introduced merely to be action fodder. At the beginning of the film, Amy tells David that she has just bought a man-trap and, around the same time, we are introduced to the man, Charlie, she used to know who will go on to rape her, and whose head will end up in the trap at the end of the film. This may be Peckinpah's sadistic slow-burn foreshadowing but he is also creating characterisation out of future action exigency. Whatever the horrific sexual politics at work in a film that indicates Amy is ambivalent when she is raped first by Charlie, and terrified only when she is immediately afterwards raped by a friend of his, Peckinpah's troublesomeness rests on determining, within the borders of genre, the ambiguity and verisimilitude of an artwork. Both the locations and the characters possess an attention to detail and complexity of personality that we might begin to expect from a work whose purpose is character and situation, so while Peckinpah is willing to accept generic markers, the moral difficulties are much more pronounced than in a typical thriller but potentially all the more troublesome as a consequence. If a director chooses to say a village they specifically locate their film within has undercurrents of tension and resentment towards incomers, and if a director shows us a woman whose sexual feelings are ambivalent, these are more readily allowable if the director doesn't then try and work these complexities out within a generic framework. Much of the film's offensiveness comes from its concreteness: it does create character and situation but they also must pay off within the givens of the siege movie from one point of view and yet they don't from others. A more cause-and-effect-oriented thriller would emphasise the revenge David seeks for his wife's rape. However, as Elena Lazic says, "this sequence is wonderful in itself, for the way it treads such a dangerous line so respectfully, giving its main character real depth and restoring to the attack its true horror. Even more impressive is the fact that it is never turned into a plot point. The attack is not what eventually triggers David into finally revolting against these local men. Amy's suffering is not the fuel that advances David's story." (Little White Lies)

One will find that Charlie's head ends up in the trap but this isn't a simple case of revenge for his wife's rape but a more complicated need to protect a local with learning difficulties from the mob, whom the locals suspect has abused a flirtatious teen. At the beginning of the film, it is this very teen we watch walking down the street co-carrying the trap. Peckinpah creates a complicated cross-cutting exploration of desire and hypocrisy which cannot be reduced to the cause and effect evident in generic revenge, the sort of killing by numbers of the later Death Wish is, in Straw Dogs, a much more complicated arithmetic. The mild-mannered mathematician may kill the man who rapes his wife but strictly speaking he isn't avenging her but protecting another man accused of doing the very thing the man he kills has done to his partner. Our point is simple even if Straw Dogs' exploration of it is intricate: that the film insists on showing people die and not merely killed. While in Death Wish one punk after another is presented as fresh flesh at the end of Charles Bronson's gun, given no characterisational complexity, in Straw Dogs, Peckinpah shows that the violence exists within the mosaic of the milieu. If killing by numbers is the most simple of equations in John Wick 3 and Death Wish, Peckinpah often wonders how to make it death rather than killing, offering instead an emotional trigonometry. The angles might not be of equal length but they are all pertinent. Death Wish and John Wick 3 are closer to a straight line, with a very strong objective obliterating complexity and thus generating numerous killings without much interest in dying.

Writing on Film Violence, James Kendrick references Rikke Schubart who, Kendrick notes, sees "a substantial shift in the action film in the past twenty years away from passion (elements of the film related to plot, myth, psychology and emotion) and towards acceleration (elements of spectacle, affect and exhilaration.)" This seems a generally fair assessment, even if we can see that Death Wish is a 70s film that is more acceleration than passion, and Kendrick illustrates how 'passionate' the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is next to other Bond films preceding it. Nevertheless, Schubart's claims generally stand. For our purposes, though, the historical aspect is secondary to the affective; not how cinema has moved from passion to acceleration but how we respond differently to death and killing in film. We are interested not chiefly in the increasing accelerative nature of violence but the presence of dying in the context of killing, even if the passionate will usually allow more space to death than acceleration. Thus it doesn't finally matter whether a character dies increasingly at the end of a gun or of an incurable disease in a hospital bed, even if the former will usually appear much more dramatic than the latter, and thus much more accelerative. Death by a gun usually has an immediacy to it the slow-burn demise doesn't possess. But this is partly why the former suggests acceleration and the latter passion if we think of the pathos often produced out of a death that dawdles towards its end. Whether it be Ikiru, Terms of Endearment, The Death of Mr Lazarescu or Amour, the films are preoccupied by the presence of death while usually a film about killing is concerned chiefly with danger. If Michael Haneke's Amour is a provocative work it rests on the danger that it incorporates within the death it moves towards. Near the beginning of the film, it looks like someone has broken into the elderly couple's apartment when they return from a concert but nothing comes of it; even if nevertheless Georges will murder his wife in a mercy killing that contains its own frustrations. He suffocates her with a pillow that gives to the film the shock of a killing within what looked like a work moving towards the predictability of a demise, despite that opening and quickly forgotten early tease. Equally, The Death of Mr Lazarescu indicates the narratively inevitable in the very title as the film shows the death needn't have been so likely but for the bureaucratic bungling and wangling that leaves a seriously ill man unable to get a hospital bed. There is suspense in The Death of Mr Lazarescu just as there is shock in Amour, but both films are very much concerned with death, its lingering likelihood and its ostensible dramatic impoverishment.

Death, all things considered, is rarely dramatic while killing usually is. When someone 'merely' dies it isn't much of a story unless that death is the end of a life we are supposed to have found interesting. Whether it is David Bowie, Sean Connery or Muhammad Ali, it is their lives that interest us not their deaths. Sometimes there are famous lives that are also killings; whether murders, suicides or accidents. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed by assassination, James Dean and Princess Diana were killed in a car crash, and Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway killed themselves. Only the first two of these have the agency of murder but all of them can be referred to as killings perhaps partly because they all contain a dramatic question that is missing from someone who dies from cancer, angina or pneumonia. Thus not everybody who dies is killed but everyone who is killed dies. Cinema often seems to reverse this fact: many who are killed don't die there is no sense of a demise acknowledged only an obstacle overcome. Speaking of video games and their obsession with killing but also the rebirth for the avatar who can get up and start again, Kate Bevan says, "in a film, death is usually the climax, a cathartic event. The battle of Thermopylae is depicted in the film 300; commentators remarked on how much like a computer game it is, with its cinematic cutscenes and boss battles. However, this film ends, as the real events did, with the glorious death of its hero, Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and his plucky army." (Guardian) However, the more film resembles a video game, the more we can talk about killing without death. Bevan notes that in the game you can die and start again, but also in video games, and frequently in films, others are there as things in the way, something that needs to be removed.

Speaking of violence in life and violence on the screen, the former SAS member Harry McCallion describes the first man he saw killed. "He was hit in the spine, the shock of the 7.62 full-jacketed round, travelling at nearly twice the speed of sound, lifting his entire body into the air...he hit the ground rolling, over and over, screaming in a high-pitched, almost child-like voice." McCallion adds that the man who shot him "took on a look of unsurpassed glee. He threw a clenched fist into the air and said softly, 'got him'." (Screen Violence) McCallion describes a death but the man who shot him witnessed only a killing. When McCallion saw Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, it was the first time he felt cinema "started to produce films that portrayed something of the reality of my world." (Screen Violence) Before the work of Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, before The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde, violence in cinema was usually shown but not quite depicted. People would be killed but the death would often be representatively perfunctory or allusive rather than explicit. Bogart merely shoots people dead with no blood to show for it in The Big Sleep. In Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia, the allusive allows for a plot twist. A young woman, whose partner abroad sends her a letter saying he has found someone else, goes out and gets drunk with a playboy and believes she has killed him after he wouldn't take no for an answer. The apparent killing is fragmentary and symbolic, as she fends him off, picks up a poker and a mirror breaks. She wakes up back at her apartment oblivious to the actions of the night before but in time assumes that she must be guilty of the playboy's murder when she hears he is dead. By the end of the film, we discover that she is innocent: another woman, whom we saw at the beginning of the film, and was infatuated by the playboy, has killed him later that night and our heroine is innocent and free. The twist is clumsy and coincidental but what concerns us is that since films often adopted an indirect approach to the violent, it could be presented, retrospectively, as a minor act of aggression rather than a murder.

If McCallion may have seen this is as a problem, awaiting a Sam Peckinpah to show killing on screen that began to resemble the deaths he saw on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, then at least the issue he had with the violent was its representational innocuousness. It was not especially with its ethical vacuity. While we are wary of making too much of the historical, when our focus is the affective, we can say with some confidence that classical cinema often gave import to the moral seriousness of a killing even it paid little attention to it as a biological fact. One didn't expect to see a body with blood pouring out of punctured lungs, heart and thighs, nor did we assume that when someone was killed there would be a few seconds of the dead person twitching. Representational realism demanded the body die more graphically but many films of recent vintage have reversed the classical equation: instead of moral significance accompanying graphic absence; we have graphic presence accompanying moral absence. Viewers see close to what McCallion saw when he witnessed the murder in Northern Ireland, but they are expected to react with the indifference of his colleague.

Some filmmakers present this combination ambivalently, aware of the affective impoverishment years of graphic presentation has created, but also fretting over the consequences of violence in the culture that they can at least show as consequential in a film: the immediate after-effect of a violent action. In A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg combines the cartoonish with the consequential; brutality meets morality. In the former film, a father who runs a diner in a small town kills a couple of thugs who come in and terrorise the place. Cronenberg sets the scene up as thoroughly generic: a mild-mannered man (Viggo Mortensen) minding his own business before being forced to show his mettle. After Mortensen has shown he is more than capable of taking on and taking out these properly hard men, Cronenberg cuts to the gooey after effect: one of them is lying on the ground, his cheek hanging off from the coffee pot Mortensen has utilised as a weapon after the villain pulled out a gun. There are few characters flatter than these two flunkies Cronenberg utilises but the director nevertheless shows killing has consequences, not only through the film as the rest of the story hinges on this moment, but also immediately. While the villain lies dying, the waitress sits shaking, her nerves as shot as the other villain's body - a few bullet holes in him by the front door. Cronenberg gives us the content of the typical action scenario, though he insists on an element of the graphic that his work in horror is famous for providing: a prosthetic brilliance that demands showing that the body is a fragile thing.

In Eastern Promises, Mortensen plays a chauffeur in London, working for the Russian Mafia who late in the film gets attacked in the swimming baths while taking a sauna. The gangsters he takes on are fully dressed in black; Mortensen is fully naked while he tries to defend himself. Once again Cronenberg takes a standard sequence and gives it a twist that attends to the realities of the flesh. While Mortensen grapples with the pair of assassins, the wounds he receives are all the more pronounced as there is no clothing to hide them. His flesh which is covered with tattoos becomes doubly marked, a vivid blend of green ink and red blood. At the end of the scene, he finishes off one of the killers by putting a knife deep into the eye and twisting it around far beyond the eye socket. The sound design captures every twist of the blade. This is killing indeed but it is also a death acknowledged. There may be little humanity to the man he kills here, just as there was none to be seen in the killer whose face is hanging off in A History of Violence, but Cronenberg shows in both instances that killing is also death. It isn't presented as a gag or an irrelevance. If we squirm when the knife goes in the eye we are, however momentarily, with the pain and not just Mortensen's victory.

In very different ways we see how two directors known for the violence of their work, insist that death accompanies killing; both Peckinpah and Cronenberg show they cannot be separated. However, while most films deal with killing over death (Peckinpah and Cronenberg are still chiefly in the films we have discussed concerned with dramatic death, despite a relative concern for the specifics involved in killing someone), people dying because their bodies defeat them is far more common than other people doing damage to them. (Cronenberg's reputation of course has frequently rested on turning disease into horror drama.) A typical year for US Deaths would be 2,854,838 according to the CDC; while there would be 19,141 killings. Yet while this is a small number of killings next to the number of deaths, those killings are still high compared to those in many other nations, and the US has a very large number due to firearms. It makes a certain socio-ethnographic sense that US film is full of weaponry. The BBC notes that as a percentage of homicides, 73% are from guns in the US while in the UK it is 4%. Canada and Australia are relatively high (39% and 22% respectively) but still much lower than the States. What are we to make of such statistics? Maybe we can conclude from them that killing even in the US is an exceptional event and yet the high incidences of firearm deaths make it seem plausible that many an American film will focus on killing over death and gunfire will be the means of administering it. It may be relatively rare to die by homicide but if you are going to be murdered in the US there is a very good chance it will be at the end of a gun. In contrast, in the UK, "knives or other sharp objects were involved in 40 percent of homicides in England and Wales in 2019/20, the most of any method of killing." (Statista) We wouldn't want to stretch a point but is it more plausible that in A History of Violence, set in the States, the emphasis is on the gun being the weapon Mortensen uses, while the English-set Eastern Promises it is the knife? Sure, one of the thugs sticks a knife into Mortensen's foot in the diner shootout in A History of Violence, which is why he hobbles around for much of the film thereafter, but the scene's generic purpose and the horror of the witnesses come when a gun is waved around. Would it have seemed needless hyperbole if the killers in the bathhouse started shooting off rounds in Eastern Promises, while we can accept without questioning it a couple of killers coming into a small diner in the US and pulling out weaponry?

Plausibility in film can be a complex thing that goes beyond the diegetic integrity of a work. Films are full of implausibilities, goofs and errors and a quick glance at Imdb's list for Michael Mann's Collateral suggests that a film can still work pretty well despite many of them. Whether it is cabbie Max convincing his mother that he is a limo driver even though his mother has phoned him at work on various occasions, which would reveal his place of employment, or when "after Vincent was shot for the first time by Max, his jacket was torn at the shoulder. In the next scene there is no tear" (Imdb), films are full of elements that could suspend our suspension of disbelief. But not all errors are of the same magnitude and some are merely improbable while others are erroneous. Maybe when the mother phones all she has is a number Max has given her and when the person answers they offer a name and not the name of the company, or the name of the company doesn't reveal it is a cab firm rather than a limo one. It is merely a questionable error; It isn't what we could call a categorical mistake, while the tear on the sleeve is. But the categorical error is so negligible that it hardly demands attention while the film's account of the mother might suggest a weak development of character. Though categorical errors are common they are the sort of mistakes that could have been rectified easily enough if anybody had noticed them, like typos in a document. Questionable errors often raise more structural issues and may require another draft, even a rethinking of the whole project if grave enough. It wouldn't be a categorical error to have the two killers coming into the bathhouse and taking out a group of swimmers and sauna visitors with AK-47s but it seems much more terrifyingly plausible that they would come in and attack Mortensen with knives. "We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script," Cronenberg says. "The choice of those curved knives we use in the steam bath was mine. They're not some kind of exotic Turkish knives, they're linoleum knives. I felt that these guys could walk around in the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say 'we're linoleum cutters.' And it's almost like they are using their knives to re-tattoo Nikolai and change his identity by changing the marks on his skin." (Film Comment) It is as though the logic of the milieu would have been lost because Cronenberg makes clear this is a country where guns aren't everywhere. There may have been categorical errors in the bath scene as Imdb notes: "...when Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) walks toward the camera with Azim, you can clearly see on Viggo's left shoulder the Elvish tattoo he got while in New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings shooting (the tattoo is nine in Elvish Tengwar writing)." But it seems of no importance next to the error of judgement that would have been made in a shootout instead of a knife fight. Cronenberg comprehends that cultural specifics matter when it comes to filming violence.

Often if we feel a realist aspect in the context of violent action it rests on the film acknowledging that killing is but a small percentage of the deaths that actually take place: that killing someone is an exceptional deed. The same verisimilitude in the context of death more generally is how mundane it is, how common an occurrence. In the UK, the population is 66 million and the death rate about 600,000 a year according to Statista. That means 1 in every 110 people die each year, and if, as Andrew Gelman in New York Times claims, "the average American knows around 600 people", then that means everyone probably knows several people a year who will die. We needn't get too lost in statistics: the point is simple and obvious a killing is an exceptional event and death frequent. It is thus also very understandable that if drama seeks the exception rather than the rule, the occasional over the everyday, murder would be much more common in film and death infrequent. If Hitchcock so famously said that his films weren't a slice of life but a slice of cake, then many a filmmaker could claim their films are slabs of homicide, murderous outings so common that even to use the word murder to describe the killings in films like John Wick 3 seems beside the point. Murder and homicide suggest the dreadfully occasional but in film they are so frequent that the word killing more accurately captures the nature of the deaths on screen. Perhaps murder and homicide also indicate the procedural and investigative, and if every film showing people killed had to offer not only a funeral but also a criminal inquiry, then would we have a curtailment of cinematic spree-killing?

But enough of the murderous in its various manifestations; even in film there is space for other terrible manifestations of the grim reaper: cancer, heart disease, strokes, pneumonia, HIV. If generally many a film about killing falls generically into the horror, gangster, film noir, the western and action film, even if we find it often enough elsewhere in black comedy, science fiction and even the musical (Chicago, Cabaret, West Side Story) then what about death by more natural causes? There is often in the HIV narrative a sense of a life cut short, a belief that the beautiful die young not because they have lived a recklessly criminal life but a passionately vivid one. The films are frequently romantic works within the sociological, aware that between the late seventies and early nineties people were not just dying but dying prejudicially, that the 'gay plague' was somehow an individual's fault for being homosexual. "AIDS was labelled the 'gay plague", suggesting that it was spread among men who had sex with men (MSM). For about six months in 1982, the condition was mistakenly labelled Gay Related Immune Deficiency.' In total, 35 million people have died of AIDs worldwide since the 1980s, including millions in Africa." (Independent) There was also "the reluctance of the law - and society more generally - to engage with gay sex lead[ing] to what some have called the desexualised "homonormative" sexual identity - a gay identity that is said to assimilate in order to gain equal status and privileges within a society in which heterosexuality is assumed, unquestioned, and dominant." (The Conversation) French cinema has perhaps been especially adept at exploring the subject in films that include Savage Nights, The Witnesses, Sorry, Angel, and 120 Beats Per Minute. To say anything intelligent on the subject would probably require an essay in itself but the films can move from the all but autobiographical (Savage Nights) to the broadly sociological, 120 Beats Per Minute. Cyril Collard's Savage Nights focuses on a reckless bi-sexual filmmaker who is HIV and still lives without thinking through the consequences upon others. Though the character within the film does not die at the end, Collard himself was dead by the time of its US release in March 1993.

It is very common for a filmmaker to create a character who dies while obviously the filmmaker lives, but in Savage Nights the reverse is the case: as though we read the character's imminent demise through the death of the director who made the film. Many other films made by queer directors are 'survivor' rather than 'victim' works the filmmakers have outlived friends and lovers whose lives they acknowledge in the work that they make, outliving too the heroes they would have loved to meet. Interviewed over Sorry, Angel, director Christophe Honore says: "At the very heart of this scenario is sincerity and truth. I tried to get close to a feeling of youth, to be close to this guy in his early twenties for whom I have a memory. At the same time, I offer him a fiction, a story he did not livewhich is something I suffer from today." Honore adds, "this is where the "today" appearsthat is, if I embarked on this film it is because I'm inconsolable today as a filmmaker and writer who was never able to cross paths with the idols from my youth. I was never able to meet the homosexual artists who were especially important to me during the '90s... - as he names Herve Guibert, Bernard-Marie Kolts, Jacques Demy, Serge Daney and Cyril Collard ." (Film Comment) It is a tradition of pain and viral loss that 120 Beats Per Minute director, Robin Campillo, sees is very different from that of the Nouvelle vague: "Being a director seemed pointless to me. The French New Wave is cinema for healthy people. You don't have people with disease in a film by Godard, not at all I think. People die but only because they have an accident: a hard, quick death, not because they have a disease." (Guardian)

In this sense, the Nouvelle vague showed killing rather than death, with Michel in Breathless and Nana in Vivre sa vie gunned down. Les cousins ends on a shooting, and Les Bonnes Femmes on a murder, and so on. Campillo sees Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5-7 as exceptional in its focus on the central character awaiting the result from cancer tests: a film about beauty curtailed by disease and not by a gun. From this point of view, AIDS gave to cinema a narrative aspect too rarely accessed, a way of dying young without adopting the murderous. This may sound like a very flippant approach to a virus that led so many to die but Campillo's claim is that all those new wave killings were very removed from most people's lives. In 2018, the number of homicides for France was 779. (Knoema) In 2017, the number of AIDS deaths was 500, according to Statista. That means even now, with the threat of terrorism never more paramount, and deaths from AIDS clearly diminishing, HIV deaths are still reasonably close to homicides. Yet how many more films and TV series even in France have shown people murdered, over dying of not just AIDS but any number of other diseases? Sure, French cinema isn't known for its capacity for violence but there are plenty thriller and action films glorifying death that go far beyond whatever problems Campillo may have had with the Nouvelle vague. Near the end of the gruesome French crime thriller Let the Corpses Tan, the film offers an extreme close-up of a gun in someone's mouth before the murderer pulls the trigger and the shot blows a hole through the back of his head. It is the sort of gratuitous action that some think might even be influencing crime itself. As a Colombian drug dealer talking about the drug violence in Marbella says: "That's really whose fault it is: all the TV shows and movies that lure young people to this world, thinking they're going to get rich." (Guardian) We hear often enough how screen violence impacts on actual killings but, while we must be wary of such cause and effect (especially when offered by a gangster looking to offload blame), nevertheless it is quite a thing when the gangsters themselves are fretting over the consequences of violence on film and TV. By making films about disease over homicide, filmmakers can seek drama and death without putting bullet holes in their characters. One website (ArdentGrowth) lists the various kill-counts of big stars, with Samuel L. Jackson top of the list (1734) and Keanu Reeves with a lot of catching up to do: a mere 387. Whatever the actual number, there is a whole lot of killing going on, and Jackson, at least, isn't hypocritical in his attitude to guns. "The actor...has spoken out against gun control and revealed he carries a weapon that he would not hesitate to use against a burglar." (Guardian) Keanu Reeves similarly is wary of gun control: "when it comes to violence in his own movies, the star of the Matrix films said he was not going to be frivolous with it, but also said he did not think a film could be linked to violent crimes committed." (BBC) The gangster might disagree, and who would we be more inclined to believe; actors who make a fortune out of onscreen death or a gangster who sees the consequences of taking out lives when killing is seen as entertainment?

One needn't view this as a call for censorship; more a demand for imagination and empathy, for closing the gap between film violence and reality not by banning anything but by asking why filmmakers don't pay more attention to death in its various manifestations - rather than chiefly through pumping holes into people. Cries and Whispers, Mother and Son and Amour are all very fine films about dying and find in the deaths they explore what we could call a slow thematic over a quick dramatic enactment. In all three films, the spaces of death aren't backdrops but integrated into the narration, while in many a killing the murder takes place indifferently: it could be a motorway, a side street, a bar or a restaurant, in a car or on a motorbike. In Bergman, Sokurov and Haneke's films, however, the space the characters occupy as they go to their deaths is integral. Speaking of Amour, Michael Haneke says that "the floor plan of this apartment is the floor plan of my parent's apartment - reconstructed according to a French style of interior decoration, of course - but other than that it corresponds to the setup of my parent's apartment almost precisely."(AFC) Set almost entirely within the one setting, Amour shows us a large Parisian flat that the two main characters appear to have lived in for many years, and all around the flat are signs of their accumulated lives. Anne becomes very ill after first one stroke and then another, and is paralysed down one side. Her husband Georges looks after her but there is little sense that her health will improve and we watch the film expecting her demise to be imminent. Yet Haneke provocatively brings killing into death when near the end of the film Georges firmly puts a pillow over his wife's face and suffocates her. Does he do it out of anger, frustration or compassion; is it not a combination of all three? He knows her life is over and that he is near the end of his own, but he seems also at the end of his tether, which leads to the killing, an almost impulsive desire to end her life aware that the continuation of it will be of little value to her and of only continual irritation to him?

Haneke's is not a cold film but it insists on showing deterioration, a bodily reality for many of us if we are not to be one of the very few who die in an accident or a victim of homicide. "The focus is unrelentingly upon degeneration, and the way in which ideals bound up with personhood are affected by the physical fading of a person's body. The emotional drama of Amour, Chris Fenwick says, does not arise from foreknowledge of our own death, but from the death - or, more accurately, the gradual disappearance - of another. It is about age and the process of dying, about what comes just before Death, hypostatized as the black sun from which we turn our gaze. Death itself is not a taboo subject, but dying is." (Lexipenia) Yet partly what is so troublesome about Haneke's film is that Anne doesn't die peacefully in her sleep but fighting ferociously for existence in the moment that she is suffocated. Her husband kills her and there is nothing to suggest that Anne would want it otherwise; though equally there is nothing to indicate that this is what she wants. There is not enough of Anne left for such a decision to be made; her deterioration going beyond autonomy and thus Georges removes her life without her consent. Yet in the abruptness of the gesture, in the impulsiveness of the deed, Georges might not seem quite himself either. Most films about killing show the characters very much themselves but the places they occupy when they are killed as often unimportant, Haneke proposes that if for much of the film Anne isn't quite there, while Georges is a character we cannot quite figure out because, for most of the film, we see him in extreme situations trying to cope with his wife's illness, nevertheless we have a clear sense of the apartment in which they live and how that space reflects thoughts and feelings rather than they themselves as characters living typical lives. The film explores them at an atypical moment but shows a space that seems very much their own. In a scene late in the film, Haneke cuts to a series of landscape paintings, viewed in close-up. They are paintings Georges and Anne have up on their walls but why does Haneke show them so specifically? Perhaps because they are part of a life that in some ways is greater than the biological even if, and maybe more especially because, they are inanimate. The erosion of time that works so fiercely on the body works much more slowly on objects and so at what point do the objects represent us more than we represent ourselves? When at the end of the film, their daughter returns to an empty apartment, the flat is only empty of Anne and Georges. The paintings are still on the walls; the books on the shelves, the records and CDs too. There are numerous traces of a life lived but no life left to live within them.

The apartment is now liminal; not quite the daughter's as she wanders through it surrounded by her parents' objects, but no longer the parents' since we can assume that they are no longer alive. This is an assumption of course because we don't know for sure what happened to Georges at the beginning of the film, the authorities break in and discover Anne dead; there is no sign of her husband as those who find Anne cover their mouths at the smell of the decomposing body. When their daughter goes into the flat at the end of the film there is no such smell and no sign of life. If we note the importance of the spaces occupied by the dying in Amour, Cries and Whispers and Mother and Son, then Amour makes this formally manifest in terrible terms. At the beginning, a body is found and the smell unequivocal; during the film we watch Georges taking care of his wife as she becomes terminally ill, and the film concludes with the smell gone but the couple absent too. The perishable has perished.

In Mother and Son, the title characters are the only people in the film while director Alexander Sokurov locates them within a landscape which dwarfs the house they are in. If the landscapes we see on the walls of the apartment in Amour are contained by the four walls of the flat, in Mother and Son, the four walls of the house are contained by the landscape that encompasses it. The title characters in Sokurov's film are more inclined to leave the house than Anne and Georges but this is for a commune with nature, while at the beginning of Amour, Anne and Georges go to a concert. There are so many people in the early scene in Amour that it takes a moment to pick the couple out from the crowd. In Mother and Son, the pair are sometimes small within the frame, not because of others but due to the natural environment that shrinks them in the image. Using distorted lenses, Sokurov offers us a contorted view of nature but at all times indicates that our being is contained by its vastness. It is a work of consolation as Haneke's is a work of disturbance, as though the paintings within the house can outlive the couple in Amour but only because they are objects. They do not perish as subjects do but they cannot be left to continue unattended as nature can. One senses in Mother and Son the mother who dies at the end will become part of the soil, a life briefly lived against a nature that will continue for millennia. In Amour, death is an inconvenience, something that gets in way of living but Haneke is aware of the urban lives we lead that pushes death very far away and where its calling becomes a problem. After Anne's stroke, the apparatus of illness is deployed: a wheelchair, a special mattress, a drip and a nurse. These are the accoutrements of a slow, modern urban demise and they are the best we can hope for to alleviate the pain and discomfort of dying. There are no such accoutrements in Sokurov's film. He shows us a tranquil death with neither immense pain nor innumerable medical interruptions.

Clearly, this doesn't mean we should allow ourselves to die stoically; Sokurov's film reduces the mother's death to its most fundamental: to a woman dying within an environment to which she will return all the better to emphasise the most basic reality of a human life contained by all that is non-human. Speaking to Paul Schrader, Sokurov said: "I think that what always interests me is just those feelings that only a spiritual person could experience: the feelings of farewells and separations. I think that the drama of death is the drama of separation." (Reflection and Film) Haneke has often been a director interested in the intricate hassles of a busy urban existence, the clutter that makes up a life, including the difficulties the returning journalist has getting into an apartment in Code Inconnu, the petty irritations that can lead to murderousness in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, and the street confrontation in Hidden, when Georges almost collides with a cyclist and gets into an argument with the other man. Haneke approaches death as yet another intrusion on a person's urban existence, yet another nuisance. It is as though the good life is supposed to remove the various inconveniences but where being urban is to be in the midst of them. Casting a great actor of irritation, Jean-Louis Trintignant, in the role of Georges, we see a man who is committed to his wife's well-being while also annoyed by any number of deeds large and small, from a pigeon in the hallway, to a nurse who doesn't know how to look after his wife properly.

Cries and Whispers feels like a film halfway between Amour and Mother and Son, a late nineteenth-century story whose first half focuses on the physical pain of one sister, Agnes as she dies. In the second, Bergman focuses on the spiritual anguish of the two other sisters who are so haunted by her demise that Bergman offers a dream sequence near the end, showing them expressing a mixture of disgust and guilt over their sister's cancerous death. If Haneke shows paintings on the wall, and Sokurov shows through the landscapes the clear influence of romanticism ("its stunning visuals of idyllic countryside and misty forests, deeply informed, as most critics noted, by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich" says Jeremi Szaniawski in Senses of Cinema), then Bergman shows in Cries and Whispers the unequivocal influence of Munch. He also suggests the presence of Klimt and Rothko on the work as well as websites including Bright Wall Dark Room and Lights in the Dusk have noticed. "All my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, it says that red represents for me the interior of the soul." (Images) Bergman might be exaggerating just how little colour means to his work, and its importance to The Passion of Anna, in its use of yellow and red, is far from insignificant. But Cries and Whispers is his most painterly film and critics have astutely noticed not only Munch's 'Death in the Sickroom' but also Klimt's 'Ria Munk on Her Deathbed' and 'No. 14, 1960' by Rothko. Like Amour and Mother and Son, it has absorbed within it an aesthetic of stillness, the fixed frame of painting utilised for its capacity to indicate the contemplative in the moving image.

We might wonder if painting lends itself much better to death than to killing, that though there are artists like Francis Bacon who captures the kinetic violence of destruction, Picasso, whose 'Guernica' depicts the bombing of the titular town, or Goya, whose 'The Third of May 1808', shows Spanish resistance to Napoleon as fighters are shot, painting can usually give to filmmakers a reflective sense of death rather than the active approach of homicidal forces. In Cries and Whispers, Bergman nevertheless shows that death is both physical and mental, a failure of the body that may be caused by a rebellion of the cells but also a failure of the mind when someone doesn't know how to live even if they have been given the health to continue doing so. At least Agnes dies because of her body and not her brain. Bergman interestingly wonders, paraphrasing Arthur Koestler, if "the human brain is like a cancer. Thousands and thousands of years ago something happened in the head of a monkey. Over his perfect little brain another brain started to produce cells like a cancer." (Ingmar Bergman Interviews) This is our brain and it gives us civilisation, of sorts. One might assume that of the three sisters it is Agnes (Harriet Andersson) who might best know how to live, perhaps evident in her claim at the end of the film as the work flashes back to her walking with her sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann). She talks about how happy she is in the sunlight, her illness not yet apparent, or at least not so advanced that she is reduced to her bed as she is in the other earlier scenes in which we see her before she dies. Karin is suicidal and Maria apparently callous, with Karin tearing her labia with a piece of glass, a gesture that seems to tell her husband that sex is out of the question but also that her life is an impossible question as well. She has always envied her younger sister Maria and it seems Maria is more inclined to generate pain in others rather than suffer it herself. She cheats on her husband with a doctor and while Bergman keeps from us the details of the affair and how the husband found out, we do see him stabbing himself in the chest. He survives, and Maria remains married while still desiring the doctor (Erland Josephson). The elliptical approach the film takes to the husband's despair is in keeping with Maria seeing it as nothing more than a trifle, though it is obviously more than that.

With self-harm and suicide attempts, Bergman indicates death permeating the material by referencing too the maid Anna's (Kari Sylwan) loss. The film shows that she lost a young daughter and Anna seems to have no husband and no other children. When she is turned out of the house after Agnes dies, given a small sum of money, it is as though we grieve for her as she no doubt has grieved for her child, the grief she will now feel all over again having lost her place in the family household, and will leave properly isolated.

Bergman's brilliance is taking what could have been a maudlin story of a forty-year-old woman's death and turns it into an encompassing account of death's constant and varying presence. While a couple of years before Bergman's film Love Story could become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time with a story of a young woman dying of leukemia, Arthur Hiller's film calibrates itself as a weepie, a death that is the exception which proves the rule and that can allow all the grieving to go into the one twenty-five-year-old woman's passing. Bergman, that great director of death in so many of its manifestations, insists that it becomes a constant presence, a temporal fact of our existence. Throughout Cries and Whispers, Bergman emphasises the sound of a grandfather clock, an acoustic reminder of our mortality as each second that passes brings us closer to our end. We will die one way or another but Bergman also wonders how one should live. The way Maria and Karin treat Anna after Agnes's death shows they have little care or compassion even if Maria in her desire to be liked offers a few gestures of gratitude as a parting gift.

What matters for Bergman is that any physical examination must contain within it a psychological enquiry; that Cries and Whispers interestingly gives us little sense of Agnes's past but fills out Karin and Maria's. Andersson noted, in an interview on the DVD extras, that she didn't know if Agnes had ever married or whether she had been sick since childhood. It doesn't really matter, since Agnes's illness needn't be found in case studying her psychology, while Maria's possible malignant narcissism and Karin's depression are sicknesses of the soul that Bergman can explore around Agnes's biological despair. It isn't uncommon for a film to focus on the various hassles and irritations within a family dealing with loss. Whether it is Marvin's Room or Terms of Endearment, Love Story or My Life Without You, the deaths are contained by the permutations of the living. In Terms of Endearment, the mother and her recent lover break up while the daughter is dying of cancer; in Marvin's Room, a father is incapacitated and bed-ridden and the daughter who looks after him herself is told she has leukemia. Her semi-estranged sister finally comes to realise that she must look after the family, while also dealing with a pyromaniac son. There are often hassles aplenty in films of terminal illness even if the through-line is clear enough, and the emotional heft usually comes from the dying or the dead. Yet they don't seem permeated by death. Bergman's film does.

One reason why we have focused on Amour, Mother and Son and Cries and Whispers as masterful films of death, is that they don't just say that life is a complicated business with death interrupting. (A great work exploring this without the sentimentality we often find in Love Story etc., is Maurice Pialat's The Mouth Agape.) They give death a metaphysical import that finds a correlative to the kinetic force of films focused on killing. We might fret over the number of homicides in film, but we have to accept that there have been so many masterful works that show people killed. Who would prefer Love Story, Marvin's Room and Terms of Endearment to The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, Taxi Driver, to The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Point Blank? The brilliance of many a murderous work often far outweighs the quality of most terminal illness films, and we might wonder why. A proper answer would lie in another essay altogether but a partial one may rest on the ontology of film as a medium of action. Someone lying in bed for much of the film might not seem like a proper use of the art form. But someone lying in bed who contains within them, through the form the film takes, a far greater existence than their own, can give to the work a texture that eschews the maudlin. All three films (Amour, Mother and Son, Cries and Whispers) are somehow indifferent to death not at all of course because of the indifference they feel towards the dying; more because they create a perspective that asks questions beyond the demise they focus upon. When Haneke says that he more or less recreated his parents' apartment, shifting the locale from Vienna to Paris, we might wonder why; what fidelity to the accumulation of their life did he want to register by insisting on such faithfulness to interior design? He shows us the texture of a life lived while showing us at the same time someone dying; it is this texture that is rarely shown in films about killing as it is the arrangement of subjects and not objects that take prominence. As Stephen Prince notes, as he looks at Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Penn and most especially Sam Peckinpah to see how they structure the violence and how important multi-camera set-ups were to Kurosawa and Peckinpah's work: killing is often a logistically impressive kinetic event. "Time slows, stretches, folds around on itself and becomes a fourth dimension." (Screening Violence)

The sort of death we find in Amour, Mother and Son and Cries and Whispers is based much more on stillness: the accretion rather than secretion of a life; the body falling apart amongst the objects that will remain. In violent films, objects are collateral damage, blown to pieces alongside the bodies, usually impersonal items that needn't concern us and haven't especially concerned the characters either. But the houses the characters in Amour etc. are dying in are homes that may be preserved after their death and thus they show not the equivalence of objects and subjects in the process of destruction, but the gap between the perishable and preservable and hence a proper sense of time in the image.

In its simplest fomulation, killing is about space and death is about time. The great films of the former often make very complex the structure of that space, as we find in Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather and The French Connection. The three great films of death that we have looked at are marvellous examinations of time, shrinking the locale and making the characters disappear into the spaces that have contained them. To have shown the characters going to hospital would have obliterated the aesthetic. When Anne returns from the hospital that Haneke has elided, she says that Georges must promise not to allow her to go back there and Haneke has been even more true to her desire by refusing to show her there in the first place.

The purpose here hasn't been to insist on the value of death over killing on film, even if we might fret over just how many people are taken out on screen; more to muse over how, whether focusing on homicide or on terminal illness, each has its own aesthetic properties that give credence to a life lost. If death is part of our lives, even if our own cannot be included, since when we are dead we are no longer part of the life that will continue, it surely deserves due respect. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as our death. We can say so many things with the attribute of I, from I am ill, I am sick, I am tired, I am hungry, I am sad and so on. But we cannot say I am dead. That can only be said of others: it is the inalienability of death. To acknowledge this fact, that death is always happening to somebody else, allows for the terrible cynicism of so many works that think nothing of taking out various onscreen lives. But the great works just somehow manage to indicate that there is a hint of alienability to the mortally lost.


© Tony McKibbin