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A Brief Review of "Targets" (1968)

Targets is a compelling movie made almost fifty years ago about a subject that a lot of us seem to think of as a "modern" problem.  I'll give it a 5 / 5, with the caveat that I'm probably never going to want to watch it again.  It's too heartbreaking.

It's loosely based on Charles Whitman's murder spree in 1966.  Targets concerns itself primarily with an unsuspecting dude (Tim O'Kelly) who lives a modest life until he finds himself compelled to go on a shooting spree. (Wikipedia says that he's a Vietnam vet, but I totally missed that.  I might not be good at watching movies.)

The film is also, strangely enough, about growing old and resigning oneself to change.  A parallel story arc concerns an aging actor known for his horror movie roles (appropriately played by Boris Karloff) who plans to retire, as he's grown weary of new film trends. You wouldn't think it works to have such different stories in parallel, but it does. O'Kelly and Karloff aren't foils, exactly, but they do cross paths in the finale in a way that cleanly ties up both arcs.

This alone is a good enough reason to see the movie because it just seems so bizarre on the face of it.  It's like making a movie about a rogue spy fighting for his life and then cutting back every other scene to a young woman who's trying to get her new ramen shop off the ground.  Find a way to tie those together while doing service to both and color me impressed.

Anyway, the bigger reason to see this movie is because it's really disturbing.  That probably doesn't sound like a good thing, but you have to admire a movie that's this effective.

Principally this is a movie about violence and random acts of cruelty.  It's not so much a rumination or an investigation as it is a documentary.  No motive is ever given.  No psychological deconstruction takes place.  Instead you are given cold, deadpan footage of O'Kelly's character planning, executing, and modifying his massacre.

Ironically, even though the film makes no effort to explain why O'Kelly does what he does, it builds empathy by filming the massacre largely from his perspective.  He spends the whole movie being reactive to his impulses and terrified by what's overtaking him, even as he finds joy and relief in his actions.  He is at the center of a deep, cosmic horror, transforming into a monster he can't comprehend. (Which makes it perfect that at the end he is stopped by a man who has grown weary of depicting monsters.)

But what's more disturbing than his crime is the context of the film.  It came out before public perception of the Vietnam War went south.  1968 was on the cusp of a great shift in American attitudes about crime and violence and degradation, but it was still squarely within that era that a lot of people think of as "the good ol' days." The fact that a movie about a horrible mass murderer was released back then is telling.

Mass shootings and random acts of violence have always been around and always will be.  When somebody's brain is broken, they will find ways to cause pain.  There's nothing we can do except try to get better at figuring out who's going to snap and intervene ahead of time.  Targets is well aware of this.  It's not a new message, and it wasn't even new back then.  It was just bold to say it in 1968.

Adding another layer of irony is that attitudes toward crime have been skewed ever since that era.  In many ways, we're getting better at preventing violence, but that's not how we perceive it.  The idea that "our country is going to Hell in a handbasket" has been persistent for decades despite overall drops in crime.

The depiction of violence is also curiously repellent.  It's not really that bloody a movie, honestly.  Most of the victims don't actually bleed - they just fall over and clasp their hands over where the bullet supposedly hit them.  But Targets doesn't cut away from the bodies the way most other films do.  The camera lingers on the dead as long as it can to elicit as much dread as it can out of you.  There's one particularly heartbreaking shot that's simply of a boy looking at his dead father.  He's not crying at the moment, but he has tears stained on his cheeks.  And... that's just it.  You get to look at that for awhile and then it's on to the next corpse.

After all of that, it's hard to really sell this, I think.  "Do you want to feel a sense of indefatigable guilt and unease?  Watch Targets!"  It's not a fun movie and it's certainly not an easy movie.  But it's incredibly well-made.  Watch this when you've got a good comedy to chase it with.