Hollywood Violence and Our Brutal Culture: Are They Related?

Violence is nothing new in Hollywood—just look at the first true narrative film ever made. The Great Train Robbery (though it was made in New Jersey and not in Hollywood) was a 12-minute film that followed two bandits as they hold a station operator at gunpoint, knock the engineer unconscious, and rob the passengers, shooting one as he tries to escape.

Still from The Great Train Robbery

Though violence was a part of cinema in 1903, in the 110 years since this film was made, Hollywood has become bolder, more technologically advanced, and more graphic. In fact, CNN recently released a list of Hollywood’s Most Violent films. The list includes classics such as The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange, and Goodfellas, as well as more recent movies such as Saw, No Country for Old Men, and last year’s Oscar nominated Django Unchained. But while most of these films have been critically and artistically acclaimed, many question Hollywood’s rising penchant for brutality, especially in light of the shootings in Aurora. Are violent movies to blame for the violence in our culture?

Of course, violence has been around since time immemorial, but there does seem to be a significant increase in violent crime. The country was still reeling from Aurora when they were confronted with the school shooting at Sandy Hook, and just a few months later, with the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. And those are just the large scale crimes. Many are blaming Hollywood for a widespread desensitization to violence. A recent study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke used an MRI to monitor brain reactions in teenage boys as they watch a series of violent clips. According to the study, a steady stream of violence lessens emotional responses to violent acts. According to Jordan Grafman, head of neuroscience at the Institute, “In our study, any effect would be temporary, but in the course of life with repeated exposures to violent media, you are shaping your brain networks to be more accommodating to aggression.”

Still from Django Unchained

Even some within Hollywood are reacting negatively to the violence on screen. Jim Carrey recently disassociated himself with Kick-Ass 2, a movie in which he himself is the star. He wrote on Twitter, “I did Kick-Ass a month before Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.”

For Jenny McCartney, of the London Telegraph, the problem is not violence itself but how that violence is dealt with. Violence, she says, is a part of human life, and Hollywood should deal with it if it wants to address actual issues facing the world. While many say that Hollywood is depicting violence too realistically, McCartney says they are not depicting it realistically enough, making it seem glamorous and fun.

McCartney says, “In my 13 years as a film critic for The Sunday Telegraph, I have watched the emphasis gradually shift towards the consumption of extreme screen brutality as a simple, almost sensual pleasure: audiences are invited to relish a man’s head being blasted apart in loving slow motion with the same unquestioning satisfaction as they experience when stuffing down popcorn.”

Even the so-called “bad guys,” she says, are Hollywood heartthrobs; violence simply looks and seems appealing when portrayed by the movie industry.

When a defense attorney sets out to work on a case, cultural influences are top of mind. If a client has been exposed to constant violence in their life—whether in movies or in real life—they are more likely to commit a crime. And when violence is an inevitable part of a culture in which decent mental health care is not, life is stacked dramatically against a client. Criminal lawyers and society as a whole are facing a monumental task—figuring out what is causing our cycle of violence and working to stop it. In this way, we can help both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crimes.

About the Author:

Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state.  She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.


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