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MOTIF(F): Nothing Beats a Good Revenge Film

A cinematic trope best served cold

Jul 27, 2016

Welcome to MOTIF(F), a frequent unpacking of a film trope we love. This week, we ask: how does one best get their cinematic revenge?

Everyone lives for a good revenge film. Mel Gibson loves them (Mad Max, Payback, Braveheart, The Patriot). Clint Eastwood built a career out of them in the Western genre (Unforgiven, Hang 'em High, The Outlaw Josey Wales). One of many Arnold Schwarzenegger's obsessed action stars steals a fighter jet to carry out his vengeance at a stratospheric level in True Lies. Liam Neeson wants Payback when his daughter is Taken (again, again and again). And vengeance and bloody retribution weave together many a Tarantino film (amongst them, Kill Bill, Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds).

I think it’s wish-fulfillment. When was the last time you got payback in a purely visceral sense, instead of just being super passive-aggressive and then tweeting about it at home? Revenge movies are my favourite because seeing retribution happen at such an epic level is really satisfying. Another reason for embracing fictional revenge is how little faith many of us have in the many institutions of authority that rule our lives. Sure, vigilante justice isn’t by any means sexy or something to promote, but the movies do a good job of making it look like a reasonable and justifiable act when all else fails.

First, Give Your Character A Compelling Reason To Kill

Aside from that show helmed by Shonda Rhimes, it’s hard to get away with murder — let alone justify it. Before you can let your hero loose on a warpath seeking bloody retribution, you have make their reasons for killing legitimate. Without a compelling, empathetic motive, your main character is nothing but a mobster or a mere psychopath. Some of the most common revenge-igniting plots in cinema are the murder or kidnapping of a loved one (Prisoners, Taken, The Bride Wore Black), a betrayal by a friend, a lover, or a spouse (Double Jeopardy, The First Wives Club), bullying or public humiliation (Carrie, Unfriended, Let the Right One In), wrongful imprisonment (Oldboy, The Count of Monte Cristo, Sleepers) and plain old abuse (I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Accused).

But what about the revenge for the death or loss of your pet? A dead beagle propels John Wick towards some of the most exhilarating martial arts sequences ever shot. In The Rover, Guy Pierce’s character slaughters a ragtag gang of thieves who steal his car, which happened to have the body of his beloved dead dog locked in the trunk. What’s beautiful about this story is that our hero doesn’t care about the car, he just wants to bury his animal in a beautiful place where he deserves to lay his happy tail to rest. I didn’t just stop writing this piece to go hug my dog, you did, okay?

Second, Give Them A Little Vulnerability

Those little moments in a revenge film when the hero buckles under the pressure of empathy and hesitation are the ones that I live for. It reminds me that I’m not watching an indestructible superhero movie, but seeing the journey of someone who’s simply caught in a bad position. And it’s even better when the character is in a constant state of physical repulsion. In Jeremy Saulnier’s debut film Blue Ruin (watch it immediately, it’s on Netflix), his hardened protagonist Dwight shivers, sweats and pukes anytime he’s close to the radioactive essence of murder. He can’t land a bullet on a guy standing 20 feet ahead of him. He splits his hand open while stabbing a guy in a dingy pub bathroom. His knee is shot by an arrow during another confrontation and we’re put through a sequence of him pulling it out and stitching up the wound.

Revenge is an emotional quest, not a rational one. It’s the continuation of a cycle of violence and tragedy. And it’s hard to harness the courage to act, just ask Hamlet. It’s angst with a gun, a car and a list of names. It’s practical and convenient in the same way that beating a beehive with a broomstick is. Movies that remind me of the pain and emotional weight placed on the protagonist make the story more visceral and ultimately better, than if the hero was a super assassin with super cool martial arts and weaponry training. (Sorry, Kill Bill.) A little realism in a revenge film never hurt anyone.

Third, Make Their Payback Big

There’s a special kind of brutal violence in these movies. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 Medieval thriller The Virgin Spring, Tore, a Christian family man, takes a bread knife and stabs the two men responsible for his daughter’s death. He hurls a boy (complicit in the murder) against a shelf of wares and watches him die unceremoniously. Tore’s revenge is beautiful and it tears you apart because no one wins in the end. Our father doesn’t get his daughter back, and his Christian family has to carry on with the weight of him becoming a murderer. That’s so Bergman.

Somehow, audiences seem okay with the gnarly violence in revenge movies because, well, the villain had it coming. We give the wronged hero a hall pass to commit atrocities that would make us cringe in any other story. For instance, I never thought that the protagonist in the 1973 action thriller Lady Snowblood was taking it too far when she drove her katana through the people who destroyed her mother’s life. Not to mention, the scene where she cuts open the body of a woman who’s already hanging by the neck. (Trust me, she had it coming.)

In Get Carter, the 1971 British gangster classic starring Michael Caine, Jack digs his way through the Newcastle gangster scene, looking for the people responsible for his brother’s death. One night, they find him and hand him a train ticket, urging him to leave town and stop poking his nose into his brother’s death. Jack’s answer is to tear the train ticket in half and smash a car window into one of the mobster’s faces. It’s bloody and detailed, we see the shards of glass and blood gushing everywhere. Yet, given the circumstances, I was far from thinking, “That’s just unnecessary.”

A Woman Scorned

I’ve chosen not to get into the rapexploitation sub-genre of revenge movies, a sadly common (and triggering) device for films with a female protagonist. (Amongst them, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Hard Candy.) This common trope of getting your revenge through heartbreak is often unfair to women, especially when it’s done through the gaze of a male director (word up, Fatal Attraction). There are lots of crazy bitches in a revenge movie, but even Gone Girl has its problems.

In François Truffaut’s 1968 film* The Bride Wore Black* (screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox July 28), finally, a beautiful woman gets her revenge and enjoys it. Julie Kohler (played by Jeanne Moreau) is set on a bloodthirsty quest after her husband is killed by a group of five men. The murder happens on their wedding day as they descend the steps of a church in the company of their family and friends. If you look closely at the deserted church, the violent death, and Julie’s defiant scowl, as she holds her dying husband, you can almost hear Tarantino say, “That’s amazing. Here’s my next franchise.”

Like Tarantino’s Bride in Kill Bill, Julie comes after her husband’s killer on her own, using nothing but her beauty, a thirst for payback and whatever resources she has at hand. She’s honey and the men are weak bears who welcome her into their homes, workplaces and cocktail parties. In one instance, she drives an arrow through one of them as she poses for a painting of Diana, the goddess and hunter. Julie breaks through all pretenses of fragility, transcending her muse status and upgrading to deity in one swift swoosh of her bow.

On a more comedic note, female revenge movies like The Other Woman, John Tucker Must Die and The First Wives Club are such hot messes that I can’t ignore them. The ‘90s comedy The First Wives Club is about four middle-aged, wealthy women who go after the husbands that left them for younger wives. A series of comically impossible break-ins, cheerful kidnappings, blackmails, celebratory synchronized dance-offs and an Ivana Trump cameo follow.

Fight Your Bully

We miss being a kid for a lot of reasons: the lack of responsibilities, the three-month summer vacation, eating whatever we wanted and not knowing what the word “metabolism” meant. But it wasn’t all fun. Unless you were born an articulate, put-together adult, most of us were awkward and had to go through massive mental and physical changes. Some of us were taunted for it.

Movies like Heathers and *Revenge of the Nerds *use this as a motivation for revenge. They depict a cartoonish, overblown depiction of earning the upper hand against their tormentors. In the beloved Karate Kid, high-school senior Daniel gets harrassed by Johnny, a bully who’s really good at martial arts. After a pretty embarrassing beatdown, Daniel meets his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, and embarks on a journey to become a master himself. After the most influential training montage in contemporary movie history (again, sorry Kill Bill), Daniel fights his tormentor. This time, he wins. (In the sequel, he is a replaced by a girl played by Hilary Swank!)

Coincidentally, this motivation is the catalyst for many a horror movie. Carrie, The Craft, Let the Right One In, Unfriended — all these teenagers are the victim of the special brand of cruelty unique to the 12-17 demographic. The bullied teens do something spooky to get their payback against the popular kids. Spoiler alert: everyone dies in the end.

Unfriended was a great addition to this tired trope, not only because of its unique format (it was entirely shot from the point of view of webcams). It’s a reflection of the modern days of cyberbullying and relentless digital taunting. In the movie, Laura Barns is bullied and harassed after a video of her drunk at a party gets uploaded to YouTube. She’s driven to suicide. In a feat of impressive cyber-supernatural hacking, Laura creates chaos by dividing the group of terrible teens against each other. She exposes them, airs out their secrets and then kills them in the most gory way possible. You go, ghost!

The Wrongly Imprisoned

You’ve seen this movie before: after years of being wrongfully imprisoned, our hero gains his freedom, thinking that he can at least go back to his old life. In the Count of Monte Cristo, it blows up in everyone’s face. The villains are so sure that they imprisoned Edmond Dantes forever that they never checked to make sure he was still behind bars. The surprise and outrage when they see Dantes standing before them, taking his possessions, wife and children back is all we can ask for.

Oldboy portrays a similar story, sans the epic retribution at the end (and bonus: with a lot more incest). I won’t spoil this bloody classic by Korean director Park chan-Wook because this movie is a curse that you can only get rid of by passing it on to others. At the beginning of the story, Dae-su is just a regular happy-go-lucky salaryman. One night, he’s kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, then released without an explanation. He spends the better part of the movie chasing after Woo-jin, the smoky entity that kidnapped him. More importantly, he wants to understand why. Then he wishes he hadn’t. And then we all need therapy to forget what we just watched.

Park Chan-wook’s revenge classic is great because it’s messy. It’s satisfactory because the villain who put Dae-su through hell (spoiler alert!) dies in the end. We celebrate that but Dae-su is left broken and traumatized forever after the victory of Woo-jin. The twist at the end (I won’t spoil that one) is a reminder that revenge doesn’t always go the way we hope.

Mother Earth Is Pissed Off

I don’t mean to sound preachy, but we’ve totally failed the planet. All of us collectively stood by while deforestation, overfishing, pollution and animal extinction happened. I’m disappointed in us. We should all be really disappointed in us. Global warming exists and even Leonardo Di Caprio can’t save us.

Movies like Dante’s Peak and Twister are more than disaster movies. They’re inadvertently poetic reminders that we live on a planet that’s constantly being wounded by our everyday actions. The breathtaking mega-tsunami that engulfs New York City in The Day After Tomorrow isn’t just a feat of CGI, it’s also a visual rendering of earthly retribution. The Yellowstone literally blows up in 2012 like someone who’s held on to too many wrongs. Watch Armageddon and Deep Impact and tell me with a straight face that the Earth isn’t dead set on getting even. When boatloads full of oil are spilling all over the world, it’s really hard not to take sides with the planet and its thirst for getting rid of us.

One Final Thought

Great movies about vengeance make us, the audience, carry the load of the moral ambiguity that comes with the act. At the end of I Saw the Devil, the handsome hero walks down an empty street wailing, as we see flashbacks of the atrocities he committed to achieve his revenge. In the stunning Norwegian indie film HEVN, Rebecca drives away from the rapist responsible for her sister’s tragic fate, unable to kill him. Sophisticated viewers don’t always need the sense of serene satisfaction that comes at the end of a Tarantino movie. There is no Clint Eastwood riding handsomely into a sunset like at the end of The Outlaw Josey Wales. The satisfying conclusion of a revenge movie isn’t Glenn Ford smiling proudly at his new shiny detective sergeant plate and carrying on with life in The Big Heat.

Great revenge is in the tragedy at the end of Get Carter. After months of unravelling the corruption and seediness behind the community of mobsters responsible for his brother’s death, Jack Carter is shot by a sniper. He dies quietly and unceremoniously. Even if Jack had succeeded in his battle against the depraved Newcastle gangsters, would that really have been a victory? His brother would still be dead. He would still be alone and his integrity in the ruthless gangster world would be obsolete. No, Carter was destined for that tragic Shakespearean ending from the moment he was introduced reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely on the train.

For me, revenge is always inextricably linked to tragedy. It might be a Pavlovian association, the first play I saw was Sophocles’ Electra. I remember quietly sobbing in the back row of a silent audience, watching the emotions of Yanna McIntosh’s Electra slowly descend from grieving anger to madness, then finally to cold emptiness. Her face when she realized that she could never go back to the way things were before she lost her father left such an impression on me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

The truth is, we need more great revenge movies that break the mold, surprise and make you think, “But was it actually a victory?” This includes more revenge tales crafted by a female writer or director, stories with people of colour in the leading roles (like in this year’s Birth of a Nation, playing at TIFF 2016, where a slave fights back against his oppressors). Less sexual abuse exploitation (please and thank you), less stereotypical portraits of everything tied up in a neat little package. Revenge is always complicated. Even when you’re Arnold Schwarzengger.