How ‘Boogie Nights’ warns against gun glamorizing without all those penis/gun cliches

There’s a strong anti-gun message layered beneath all the sex, drugs and funny haircuts in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Disco-era porn-industry opus. And I’m not talking about that cliche about big guns and phallic inadequacy. The 1997 film takes on the kind of cowboy confidence, lethal impulsivity and firearm fetishizing that often accompany gun ownership and pervade our twisted gun culture.

I never would have noticed if I had not spent the past month immersed in the movement to reduce gun violence in the United States. Since the mass shootings at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado and an office holiday party in San Bernadino, CA I have interviewed a number of grassroots activists, familiarized myself with state and federal laws, joined several anti-gun violence campaigns and Tweeted my member of Congress daily. So my gun violence antennae were already activated as I watched Boogie Nights with my fiancee on New Year’s Eve.

The film, which depicts the California porn industry in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties, highlights a few scary realities about guns in the United States.

First, there’s our culture of gun glamorizing. After the film’s main character Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his friend Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) pitch a porno series based on their tough-guy fantasies to director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), Horner agrees to create an X-rated Starsky and Hutch. Dirk and Reed star as Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell, two overgrown kids who run around busting ninja moves, shooting bad guys and getting blow jobs. During the opening credits, they strike poses and fire shots from cool angles at off-screen foes. The corny buddy-cop series is certainly representative of the juvenile crime-fighting fantasy that attracts Americans, especially men, to guns. Guns will not only make us cool and brave, they will make us heroes.

Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly as Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild as Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell

The hero-fantasy plays out in the “real world” when an armed thief attempts to hold up a donut shop where pornstar-turned-small-business-owner Buck (Don Cheadle) is buying treats for his pregnant wife. An outdoorsman reading a hunting magazine at a nearby booth whips out his handgun and fires at the robber. It’s the classic “Good Guy with a Gun” scenario the NRA trumpets as the ultimate defense against crime. The challenge backfires: the robber quickly fires back and kills the vigilante “Good Guy.” Before he collapses, the thief blows the store clerk’s face off and bits of human meat splatter Buck. This scene imitates life, where Good Guy with a Gun is a mostly mythological figure. The FBI reported that out of 160 active-shooter incidents between 2000–2013, only one was stopped by a civilian with a concealed firearm. And sometimes, Good Guy gets got.

The Good Guy with a Gun mythological figure

Boogie Nights illustrates how guns enable lethal impulsivity, especially in cases of domestic violence and suicide. “Where there are more guns, more women die,” explained Dr. Deborah Azrael, the associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center last year. Activist group Everytown for Gun Safety also focuses on the “deadly relationship between guns and violence against women in America.” More than half of women murdered with guns are killed by intimate partners or family members and American women are eleven times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other wealthy nations.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, assistant director “Little Bill” (William H. Macy) finds his wife boning another man at a New Year’s Eve party. Drunk and fed up with her promiscuity, Little Bill immediately heads to his car, grabs a gun and shoots his wife and her lover. He then steps back into the hallway, sticks the gun in his mouth and sprays his brains onto the wall behind him. Suicide is often a spur-of-the-moment decision. According to the the Harvard School of Public Health, most suicide attempts occur during a fleeting moment of vulnerability. Guns provide an efficient tool for turning that brief suicidal impulse into instant death.

Little Bill about to paint the wall behind his head

Later in the film, as Dirk and Reed plunge toward rock bottom, their friend Todd (Thomas Jane) concocts a plan to sell fake cocaine to a depraved drug dealer named Rahad (Alfred Molina). Dirk and Reed are clearly nervous, but Todd is cowboy confident. His handgun has infused him with false bravado. After buying the bundle of baby powder, Rahad smokes crack and plays Russian Roulette with a gun stuck to his throat. When a freaked-out Dirk decides the group is leaving, Todd makes his move. He demands that Rahad hand over a secret stash of drugs and cash and pulls out his gun. Rahad escapes to his bedroom as his bodyguard battles Todd. After Todd shoots the bodyguard he chases after Rahad, who blasts him in the stomach with a shotgun. The scene is an extreme example of how guns can escalate a tense situation such as a road rage incident or a regular, old argument.

Rahad Jackson blows Todd away as gun violence begets more gun violence.

Next time you watch Boogie Nights, pay attention to its message about guns. The movie manages to formulate a complex argument against gun glamorization amid a sexual atmosphere without suggesting compensation or comparing guns to Dirk Diggler’s monster cock. Instead of considering firearms as a dangerous, utilitarian machine to be used as a last resort in the face of a deadly threat, we tend to embrace guns as some bad-ass badge of toughness. The problem is not gun ownership per se. The problem, as Boogie Nights illustrates, is the bizarre gun-fetish culture that equates firearms with virility, bravery and heroism.