From Greek tragedy to Shakespeare and beyond, vengeance is an eternal theme in serious drama, where the moral implications of one’s right to take retribution weigh heavily. It’s also a staple in exploitation fare, in which the basic (and, sadly, often merely base) instinct of ‘getting even’ provides superficial justification for extreme depictions of violence begetting violence.
Of course, revenge narratives aren’t always so neatly divided into high- and lowbrow (witness gruesome scenes featured in, say, Medea or Titus Andronicus). It’s the highwire act along this thin blood-red line that no doubt excites many artists. Revenge speaks not just to some deep-seated human desire for righting a wrong, but perhaps also to our aesthetic appreciation. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but does so with a certain neat symmetry. It’s also innately about conflict and change, the engines of storytelling. Forgiveness, on the other hand, though more ethically laudable, is far less visceral or visual.
Neither of these two qualities has been lacking in director Paul Verhoeven’s career, from the work in his native Holland (Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange) to a Hollywood spell of subversively outlandish spectacles like Robocop (1987), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). His new, French-set film, Elle, continues this flagrantly provocative bent, with the story of an older woman raped at home who sets out to identify and turn the tables on her attacker.
Starring the great Isabelle Huppert in one of her finest, most daring performances (and that’s saying something), Elle plays out in unexpected ways, including some twists that teeter on, and arguably plummet over, the edge of acceptability. It’s much more than ‘just’ a revenge drama, but the way it tackles Huppert’s physical and psychological complexities recalls other films where vengeance is used for artistic payoffs far greater than simple payback.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Director: Anthony Mann
A groundbreaking film on screen and off, this western didn’t just change James Stewart’s personal fortune (after the first-ever actor’s deferred-salary-for-movie-profits deal), it sparked his mid-career renaissance, freeing him from his pigeonholing as a good guy in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and leading to his fascinatingly twisted roles for both Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo) and his director here, Anthony Mann.
Winchester ’73 is the first of their five noir-tinged westerns, which – with minimum fuss and maximum impact – recalibrated the genre away from virtuous white-hat heroes to neurotic hair-trigger outlaws, whose vengeful quests had more in common with the bad guys of old. Here, Stewart’s on the trail of the sworn enemy who’s stolen his prize rifle and will stop at nothing, certainly not collateral violence, to get it back. Racial mores of the time don’t sit well today (and a young Rock Hudson as a warmongering Native American certainly doesn’t help), but it’s a psychologically complex, lean yet wide-ranging tale, one that often diverts to follow those who temporarily come into possession of the rifle as much as it tracks Stewart’s (self-)righteous mission.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Conspicuously undervalued – even by the director himself – among Ingmar Bergman’s tortured meditations on human suffering and divine silence, The Virgin Spring is as close as the great Swedish filmmaker ever came to a literal horror film. Perhaps it’s the anti-genre bias, along with the revelation that it served as inspiration for Wes Craven’s early grindhouse nasty The Last House on the Left (1972), that counts against it. Yet there’s so much more here than a proto-exploitation flick.
Based on native medieval folklore, the story is pure sting-in-the-tale comeuppance: an innocent young woman is brutally raped and murdered in the woods by degenerate herdsmen, who in turn take shelter at her parents home, only to be slaughtered by her father (the great Max von Sydow) when they inadvertently reveal their terrible deed. Into this, however, Bergman weaves his perennial enquiries into the nature of evil, faith and guilt, in a society itself torn between old pagan beliefs and burgeoning Christianity. And even the titular climactic miracle cannot answer whether vengeance was justified, nor whether God was present at either murderous act.
Lady Snowblood (1973)
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Quentin Tarantino cribbed liberally from numerous movies for his Kill Bill opus, but surely no single film was more influential than this cult Japanese manga adaptation, with its sword-wielding female warrior, fractured chronology, copious bloodletting and limb-lopping. Toshiya Fujita’s revenge epic is as streamlined as its implacable heroine Yuki’s mission – to slay the four sadists who killed her father and raped and left her mother to die in the slum prison where she was born.
Iconic star Meiko Kaji’s merciless mix of grace and menace even extends to her singing the theme song ‘Flower of Carnage’. And Fujita’s ceaseless invention even inserts panels of Kazuo Koike’s original comic into the narrative flow. There’s also potent social critique: on another level, Yuki’s ruthless nemeses epitomise the rapacious, international trading of the story’s 19th-century Meiji era, with Lady Snowblood effectively standing up for the exploited and discarded masses and traditional culture itself. Mainly though, this is the original, bloody “roaring rampage of revenge” its fans have long honoured.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
Director: Douglas Hickox
Revenge as a dish best served not just cold but with icy camp set dressing in this gleefully hammy British horror classic. Vincent Price is Edward Lionheart, a (terrible) Shakespearean actor driven to supposed suicide by derisive critics, who then takes suitably theatrical revenge on these hacks – played by a ‘Who’s Who’ of the UK’s finest character players – in all manner of Bard-inspired poetic injustice. To wit: Michael Hordern hacked to death by a mob, à la Julius Caesar; Robert Morley force-fed his beloved pooches in the style of Titus Andronicus; and so on.
Price is having an absolute ball, clearly relishing the soliloquy snippets he’s granted ahead of each murder and was presumably denied more opportunity to tackle in real life due to typecasting. And Diana Rigg as his accomplice daughter joins in with full abandon. Douglas Hickox’s film may be a quasi-remake of Price’s earlier multiple-revenge comedy-horror The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), but the drab 70s London trappings and pointed sullying of Shakespeare marks it out as a grubby English national treasure.
Rolling Thunder (1977)
Director: John Flynn
Amid the 1970s and early 80s run of vigilante movies, John Flynn’s tough-as-nails action film sets itself apart in various ways. Its San Antonio, Texas setting removes it from the ‘urban hell’ marked out in Death Wish (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Ms. 45 (1981) and the rest. And foregrounding its post-Vietnam setting adds a dimension that was rare at the time.
As ex-PoW Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and his sidekick Johnny Vohden (an impossibly youthful Tommy Lee Jones) pursue the home invaders who mutilated war hero Rane and killed his wife and son, there’s an explicit sense of men dishing out their rough justice as the only way of dealing with their personal post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course it’s weighted so that the slimy, sadistic villains fully deserve their bloody fates and ultimately glories in its brutal payback. But the introspective tone and measured pace around the carnage, economically but purposefully expressed by the underrated Devane, hints at a darkness less tangible and more troubling just beyond the exploitation movie’s frame and remit.
Director: Park Chan-wook
No national cinema has ever been as successfully fixated on the theme of revenge as South Korea. Attributing causes for this trend – sublimated reaction to the ever-present antagonism of neighbouring North Korea? – would require separate, longer speculation. Suffice it to say, South Korea’s stylish, blood-soaked avengers have broken into the international marketplace. And none more so than Park Chan-wook’s ‘vengeance trilogy’, of which the centrepiece, Cannes prize-winning Oldboy, was for many the introduction – and still the standard-bearer.
Park’s dazzling virtuosity gives us numerous jaw-dropping set-pieces, from a side-on, wide-shot, one-take epic fight scene, to a gruesome, animal rights-baiting live octopus restaurant encounter. But it’s the canny perspective shift – our deranged anti-hero Dae-su Oh (a breathtakingly intense Min-sik Choi) is both hunter and prey, trying to find out who imprisoned him for 15 years and still torments him – and a shocking final twist that make this a fan favourite. Park’s later Lady Vengeance (2005) arguably handles its rough justice themes with greater maturity, but for sheer visceral impact Oldboy still hits like a hammer to the head.
Director: Steven Spielberg
In the aftermath of 11 Israeli athletes’ murder at the hands of Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics, their government launched a covert operation to strike back. Steven Spielberg’s Munich follows the assassination team deployed to hunt down the perpetrators, openly admitting that it’s “inspired by real events” rather than factual fidelity. These fictionalised twists and turns, written by playwright Tony Kushner, led to accusations of bias – from both sides of the Middle East conflict.
Spielberg’s truth is that he’s more concerned with probing the wider ethical repercussions of tit-for-tat vengeance, rather than seeking to prosecute either side in a cinematic court. By these standards, it’s one of his finer films, full of brilliantly staged, sickeningly tense set-pieces and superb ensemble performances. The big cross-cut climax is bafflingly misjudged (there’s a whole thinkpiece to be written about Spielberg’s awkwardness with on-screen sex), but it’s not enough to cancel out what’s gone before: a probing, haunting enquiry into when, in Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s words: “Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
Director: Götz Spielmann
Austrian filmmaker Götz Spielmann’s intimate chamber piece was Oscar-nominated in 2009, though today it already seems to have been largely and unjustly forgotten. While the premise offers a classic revenge gambit – an innocent’s wrongful death that the shattered lover yearns to avenge – this is a gripping, slow-burn character study whose plot gears seem almost incidental to the emotional drive of its principal protagonists.
Two couples, seemingly worlds apart (a low-rent ex-con and his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend, an upstanding provincial policeman and his outwardly chipper but quietly despairing wife) fatally collide when a bank robbery goes wrong. The shift from grim urban brothel to bucolic woodland hideaway is beautifully realised, but it’s our inescapable internal prisons that Spielmann elegantly hones in on. Yet, if this is a tragedy, it’s one shaded with faint hope. ‘Revanche’, the French word for ‘revenge’, in German means ‘rematch’, here perhaps even a shot at redemption: fleeting moments of happiness that must be stolen in a world that gives nothing without exacting a heavy price.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Korean cinema aside, Tarantino’s credentials as revenge cinema’s modern-day go-to auteur are indisputable. From Kill Bill (2003) onwards, each subsequent film centres on, in Pulp Fiction’s biblical words, “great vengeance and furious anger”, be it in civil war-scarred America (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), the grindhouse stunt that is Death Proof (2007) or, most potently, this revisionist Second World War epic.
Brad Pitt’s eponymous hit squad, largely made up of GI Jews, is a cute concept but, ostensibly, they’re just on standard Nazi killing duty, albeit with added sadistic relish. What’s more interesting is the concurrent story of young French fugitive Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), whose family is murdered early on by ruthless SS colonel Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Landa (Christoph Waltz on career-defining form). Shosanna harnesses the power of cinema itself for her ultimate retribution: her art deco Parisian cinema becomes her enemies’ mass grave, the highly flammable nitrate celluloid both her vindictive propaganda and funeral pyre fuel.
The Salesman (2016)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Newly anointed as Oscar’s latest (and Asghar Farhadi’s second) best foreign-language film winner, this Iranian morality play is another of its writer-director’s precision-tooled dissections of the fractures and fault lines in domestic relationships – not to mention, apartment blocks. The potential collapse of the building where well-heeled schoolteacher Emad (Cannes best actor Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) live forces them quickly into another flat, one whose previous owner’s possessions and reputation for numerous gentlemen callers are still very much present. When Rana suffers an injury from one such unannounced visitor, Emad is consumed with finding the culprit.
Though Farhadi cunningly exploits the threat of violence, past and present, what’s more at stake here is the shame such an attack engenders. Revenge is never as simple as an eye for an eye. Through Emad and Rana’s involvement in a local stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi cleverly invokes telling parallels, not least in a critical look at how Emad’s patriarchal appropriation of his family’s narrative itself suffocates the couple’s own emotional life.
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