Freudian psychoanalysis, though largely discredited by modern psychologists, still looms large over the contemporary American artistic tradition. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that Freud articulated the more perverse behaviors of the psyche, the kind of desires that are so often ruminated on by our less moralistic artists. Sex, death, hatred, guilt, et cetera. In his landmark 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he complicates the common instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain (the titular ‘pleasure principle’) with a concept he calls Todestrieb, most commonly translated as ‘deathwish’ or ‘death drive’, and also occasionally referred to as Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. Freud argued that there is a certain pressure on all living organisms to exhaust their bodies, to draw the cycle of the creation and depletion of life-energy to its inevitable close, and that this biological phenomenon brings about a psychological attraction to death. And though often cited as his most controversial and least empirical text, the essay’s formulation of a deathwish still plays a pivotal role in art almost a century later.
Frank Kermode’s 1967 essay The End, documents a similar desire as manifest in art and mythology, and helps to explain the frankly counter-intuitive idea of a death-wish in much more general terms without claiming to be empirical the way Beyond the Pleasure Principle did. At a crucial part of the essay, Kermode argues that in imposing narrative onto a world of chaos, we “make much of subtle disconfirmation and elaborate peripeteia” and concern ourselves with “the freedom of persons within that plot to choose and so to alter the structure, the relations of beginning, middle, and end”. We desire meaningful ends; the relief of reducing ourselves to lifeless flesh is compounded by the ceremony and significance of death at a moment of appealing peripeteia. Deathwish makes a lot more sense as part of a greater narrative.
This helps to explain Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall)’s death scene in Gamer. First, it is interesting to note that the jerky cinematography, fizzy audio and visuals which vascillate between high-contrast neon landscapes and austere urban battlefields, settle into a dark but not excessively bleak and relatively tame sequence. The filmmakers subvert the visual language just as they subvert the classic battle of good vs. evil, as often conflated with ideas like cunning and humility. It indicates that what is about to higappen is going to be cerebral, at least compared with the rest of the movie. It disrupts our expectations, and prepares us for something we don’t expect.
Through the sheer willpower and the help of his benevolent ‘player’ Simon, Tillman is able to break the power of Castle’s telepathic suggestion, and hold the knife to his stomach, but he does not have the necessary strength of mind or body to actually thrust the knife in. And just as the Nanite technology exploits our deepest most perverse desires (i.e. to eat bugs and have weird sex, as in Society, or to kill, die, and watch others do the same, as in Slayers), Tillman exploits that most perverse, basal desire, the deathwish, to kill Castle. He urges Castle to imagine the sensation of being stabbed, and he is unable to resist. The feedback loop of his latent desire to die swells and together, they will the knife into his stomach.
But it is not just Castle’s animalistic desire at work here. His death is being broadcast across the country. It is the end of an era, the fall of the empire suggested by the name of his eponymous video game development company. It’s the romance of the situation, the elegant consonance of the player becoming the controller and the engineer’s technology turning on him, much akin to Kermode’s treatment of apocalypse as well as Kundera’s treatment of Anna Karenina, which gives his death meaning in a greater narrative. The deathwish and the romance of eschatology compound. If the scene can be interpreted correctly through the lens of Freud and Kermode, then Castle’s death is essentially suicide, and hardly assisted by Simon or Tillman at all.