Revenge is great.
Without this classic of motivating factors, we wouldn’t have some of the best and most violent films cinema has to offer, and Quentin Tarantino would have nothing to rip off. But is revenge as brilliant as the big screen makes it out to be? Are we nothing more than blood-thirsty ghouls in a modern Colosseum waiting for Russel Crowe to put his dagger right into Joaquin Phoenix’s throat? (Spoilers for Gladiator, Crowe indeed has his vengeance.) Is it really okay to brutally murder people in an eye for an eye way and then live happily ever after with whatever woman you’ve accidentally kidnapped on the way? Seriously, this rarely happens the other way around. In the spirit of these completely rational questions (Joker and Killmonger were not, in fact, right), let’s take a look at the modern trope of the anti-revenge revenge movie.
I could have legitimately filled this list with South Korean films; The Villainess, Oldboy, The Wailing all fall under this banner, so let’s go with the ever-underappreciated I Saw the Devil. I could gush and gush about director Kim Jee-Woon’s horrible masterpiece: the tension, the performances, the action sequences (much like Oldboy, this is a straight-up thriller that just happens to have some of the best action you’ve ever seen), but the main thing is how I Saw the Devil so perfectly encapsulates exactly what I mean about anti-revenge.
The “hero” of the story is tracking down the serial killer who brutally murdered his pregnant wife, so far so familiar, but what the film does so well is to show how this quest makes the hero nearly as corrupt, and just as dangerous as the man he is hunting. There is no catharsis with victory here, only nothingness as the quest was the only thing keeping our hero going; the real horror begins as the story we’re privy to ends, and that discomforting realization that his revenge has fixed nothing is a complete subversion of the genre as we know it.
To take things to a more familiar place for our English-speaking readers, Wind River, like I Saw the Devil, begins with a familiar premise: a teenage girl is found dead in an isolated Native American community, and only two Avengers can solve the murder. Sorry, oversimplification aside, it’s just nice to see both Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in a grown-up film, it feels like it’s been ages.
Wind River is a tense ride, a neo-Western that brutally shows the effects of death and isolation in this small community. What’s amazing is that Sheridan strips away the veil of hypermasculinity that so often clouds the Western; none of his characters are tropes, and they are allowed to have feelings without someone in a stetson getting uncomfortable. It’s through this approach that we see how ultimately hollow the idea of revenge is. Sure, justice is served, or something close to it in movie-land, but the loss it caused hasn’t disappeared, something the film’s final scene puts a very powerful full stop on.
Jeremy Saulnier has a very unique approach to storytelling. His debut feature, Monster Party (it’s on Netflix and you must watch it) deftly combined horror and comedy in a way that is far less patronizing and meta than it could have been. His films since then have basically been about a very bad thing happening on a really small scale.
Both Green Room and Hold the Dark (which is a good companion piece to Wind River if you really want to fuck yourself up) bring a tension and urgency to what should be mundane plots. Blue Ruin is his masterpiece and perhaps the greatest American anti-revenge film ever made. I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, this is a film that greatly benefits from going in cold. The basic story is the answer to the question, “what if the Bride still killed Bill, but instead of a skilled assassin she was a homeless idiot?”
Modern cinema seems to be slowly coming around to the idea that revenge isn’t glamorous. It can be fun to watch, cathartic for the characters and the audience, but ultimately it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the most powerful stories that surround this notion These films show revenge as something to be afraid of, because it can take more from you than you think you have left – and there’s no catharsis to be found in these unrelenting tales of what comes after the revenge you thought you wanted.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Bustle)