But what makes Observe and Report so disturbing is the environment that Hill has created around Barnhardt and that environment’s relation to the security guard. Although most of the film’s other characters treat him as a harmless nut or as an unavoidable irritant, several view him in a considerably more positive light: his underlings look up to him, while a born-again coffee shop worker looks at him with romantic yearning. But even setting these exceptions aside, the filmmaker has crafted a world where it is possible for such an obviously unhinged figure to function, a world where Barnhardt may not be liked, but he’s at least indulged. Working within the comedic genre, Hill has a certain leeway for free play with his film’s sense of reality and the project requires that he provide his character with sufficient room to maneuver in order to maximize a given scene’s comic potential, but it nonetheless remains deeply unsettling when we’re asked to watch Barnhardt – to cite one of many examples – go back behind the counter of a coffee shop, mercilessly beat the manager and walk away unpunished.
It’s almost as if the film shares its character’s delusions. As they become more and more severe, Hill becomes more and more indulgent, even to the point where he seems to buy into Barnhardt’s belief in his own superhuman physical capabilities. In one scene, the security guard, who has aspirations to become a policeman, weasels his way into a ride-along with an unwitting officer and as punishment for his unwanted presence, the cop drops him off at the city’s most notorious crack spot and drives away. Threatened with a gun to the head by a local dealer, Barnhardt manages to not only escape from the bind, but to kill three men and bring in a child dealer on a citizen’s arrest. Again, since the scene is mostly played for laughs, we may be expected to indulge the director in a certain suspension of disbelief, but the action is so farfetched and the film, despite its comic orientation, so darkly attuned to character that this bit of “heroism” seems less like a plausible event in the film’s reality and more a fantasy playing out in Barnhardt’s head.
Which brings us to the film’s conclusion. Fired from his security job, rejected by the police force for failing a psychological test (the film’s sense of reality seemingly catching up with the character’s insanity), Barnhardt turns full-on vigilante in order to nab a flasher that has been terrorizing the mall. Finally catching up with the perp after a long chase (in an uncomfortable bit of comedy, the naked man’s fat flesh and undersized penis are fully visible throughout), he pulls out his pistol and shoots him at close range, although the flasher survives his wounds. Walking out triumphant, Barnhardt heads over to the police department to lord it over the men who rejected him, then happily engages in an interview with a local television station and leaves the scene with a new girlfriend in tow, fully rewarded for his questionable actions.
There are three ways to read this ending, none of them entirely satisfying. If we take it on the surface level – and it is wholly possible to do so – then the film is quite clearly as insane as its lead character. Basically, a civilian man pulls out a gun and shoots a flasher (a rather petty criminal in the grand scheme of things) in the middle of a crowded mall and rather than being arrested for attempted murder, he’s treated as a hero. Even when he goes over to the police station, the officers continue to indulge him, showing him begrudging admiration despite his employment of extreme, extra-legal means. Just when the film was beginning to properly situate Barnhardt in some sort of punitive context, he’s granted instead a form of redemption, through the completely unnecessary and wholly irresponsible discharge of a firearm.
But Hill can’t be serious, can he? Surely, we can’t take this at face value. Even given the film’s elastic sense of reality, the ending seems to strain at the bounds of what an audience is prepared to accept. Which brings us to the second possibility, that the ending – or even the entire film – is a fantasy that plays out in the head of the lead character. Admittedly, there is little specific textual evidence to support such a reading, but the sheer implausibility of the film’s response to Barnhardt’s actions forces us to at least consider that none of what we’ve seen has actually occurred. In one scene late in the film, some 30 cops show up at the mall to arrest the security guard. Barnhardt singlehandedly beats up about 10 of these men (another show of superhuman strength that seems like pure fantasy), before himself being beaten and taken to jail. Next thing we know he’s back at home, his wounds have healed and there are no legal ramifications for his actions. Now clearly, the film suggests a lapse in time as explanation for the change in circumstances, but the suddenness of the ellipsis and the absolute excision of any mention of the arrest from the rest of the film force us to call into question the reality of what we’ve just seen. Then if we read the movie’s final wish fulfillment sequence, with Barnhardt lauded as a hero, against its counterpart in the film’s most obvious model, Taxi Driver, (which Hill clearly intends us to do) it at least suggests the possibility that, as in the ending of Scorsese’s film, the filmmaker has switched over to a subjective presentation of reality, taking his cues from the delusions of his lead character. The difference is that, in Hill’s case, this switch may have been made much earlier.
The third way of reading the ending, and perhaps the most plausible, is as something of a hybrid of the two earlier possibilities. We can take the actions we see as having actually occurred, but as refracted through the sensibility of the lead character. So when Barnhardt brawls with the police officers and is finally taken in, we can understand that yes, he really did put up a fight, but Hill probably exaggerated the effect, drawing on the character’s subjective understanding of the scene to increase the violent effect and impart a troubling ambiguity to his project. At the end when Barnhardt walks off in seeming triumph, it’s up to the viewer to take what he’s learned about that troubled individual and read the conclusion according to that understanding. Although it is possible to take the ending quite literally, it’s the responsibility of the attentive filmgoer to apply a certain skepticism, born of the film’s consistent presentation of character, to his response. And yet, even if we accept that Hill has shown us enough of Barnhardt’s dangerous insanity throughout the rest of the film to sufficiently call into question his own conclusion, even if we realize that this conclusion has been colored by the character’s own subjectivity, there’s still no way to quite explain it away. We are still presented with the spectacle of an extremely violent man being celebrated for indulging in his most lethal tendencies, a spectacle whose deeply unsettling dramatization no amount of intellectual justification can explain away.