Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Revenge Movies

I love revenge movies, always have and always will. Most of the time they take the form of a wrong being done to someone and then that person setting out and seeking revenge on the people that did it to them. This has been a genre movie staple for decades now. And while often, these movies are fun and entertaining, they don’t have to be. Some are downright disturbing and violent. When I made up this list, I found that it was these movies that stuck out the most for me. There are many great revenge movies out there – and I probably missed some that many others would undoubtedly include – but for me, these are the revenge movies that stand out most in my mind.

10. Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977)
John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder is a pretty much forgotten masterpiece of late 1970s American cinema. A Vietnam veteran (William Devane) returns to his small Texas hometown after spending 2,554 days as a POW in Hanoi. He is given a hero’s welcome, a new Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars – one for every day he spent as a POW plus one for luck. But his wife has moved on in the years he was gone, and is now engaged to Cliff, a local cop. Devane moves back in with his wife for the time being at least, but has trouble readjusting to his life. A local gang breaks into his house one day intent on stealing the silver dollars, but Devane refuses to talk, even after they shove his hand in a garbage disposal. Then his wife and child come home and the kills them both and leaves Devane for dead. When Devane gets out of the hospital, he sets off to take care of the gang that killed his family. Rolling Thunder is a disturbing, and complex movie. Written by Paul Schrader at the height of his powers, Rolling Thunder becomes a movie about an emotionally deadened individual who cannot let go of the past. Tommy Lee Jones delivers a fascinating supporting performance as Devane’s friend, who helps him because he also cannot let go of his army days and the torture he endured. The movie ends, as many revenge movies do, with a bloody shootout, and while the “good guys” get what they are after, they walk out into the sun with an unsure future ahead of them. Now that Devane has his revenge, what else does he have left?

9. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
Perhaps the best of the Sergio Leone Westerns (although The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would also be a valid choice), Once Upon a Time in the West sees Henry Fonda play one of the most cruel villains in cinema history. Hired by an old, railroad baron to help get his track completed, so he can see the Pacific Ocean before he dies, Fonda’s Frank kills an entire family who is standing in the way of the railroad. Little does he know that the widowed patriarch has recently gotten married, and his widow (Claudia Cardinale) knows owns the land that Frank covets. He plans to kill her as well, but is stopped by two men – Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), who have their own reasons for helping Cardinale. It is Harmonica who is the most fascinating character in the movie, as he keeps his motives to himself, although every time he is confronted by Frank and is asked his name, he simply lists off more of Frank’s victims. It is not until the final shootout between Bronson and Fonda, that we learn the reason why Bronson wants him dead. Once Upon a Time in the West is a great Western, and in my mind, the best that genre has to offer in terms of revenge movies – a staple of the genre. A true masterpiece.

8. In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)
A young man (Nick Stahl) has an affair with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) and ends up being murdered by her ex-husband (William Mapother). Since there is no witness of what happened, Mapother will likely end up with a conviction of manslaughter and get only a few years in jail. Out on bail, and still in the small town, Stahl’s parents, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, grow increasingly angry with everything that happened. Their marriage is being destroyed by grief and anger, so Wilkinson hatches a plan of his own. He kidnaps and murders Mapother, and buries him out in the middle of nowhere. But does the fact that he now has his “revenge” actually make him any happier, or bring he and his wife any real solace? At the end of the movie, the married couple is still empty, and while the object of their anger is gone, they still do not have their son back. In the Bedroom is a drama, not an action movie, and one that looks carefully at the people involved, and ends up with only sadness and tragedy.

7. Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
I know that Stephen King ended up pulling his “Bachman Books” off of shelves after Columbine, because one of his stories, Rage, was similar to the Columbine incident (not really, accept it involves a kid going into school with a gun), but I think that it is Carrie that is his ultimate teenage revenge fantasy. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is the teenage daughter of a religious fanatic (Piper Laurie), who is the most unpopular girl in her school. When she has her first period (and, at 16, this is very late), in a gym class shower, she mocked by her entirely class who chant “Plug it up” and throws tampons at her. At home, her mother tells Carrie that her humiliating period is God’s punishment for having sinful thoughts. But having her period is not the only change her body is going through – she is also starting to realize she has telekinetic powers, although one she cannot control. One girl in the class feels guilty about what she did, and convinces her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. Her mother doesn’t what her to go and tells her “They’re all going to laugh at you!” but Carrie goes anyway. The prom turns out to be a nightmare, and standing on the stage, soaked in pig’s blood, Carrie loses control and kills everyone she can, before setting the building on fire and trapping the rest of the students inside, before fleeing. But her murderous rage doesn’t end there. DePalma’s Carrie is perhaps the best adaptation of a King novel ever (or at least, the best faithful adaptation, as Kubrick’s The Shining makes many changes) and is pretty much the perfect evocation of the anger and pain felt during the teenage years, and the taunting that makes some people snap. Carrie is far from a hero in the movie, but she is also not a villain. She is a sympathetic person who simply cannot control herself.

6. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2004)
For almost three hours, we watch as Nicole Kidman’s Grace gets brutalized, raped and treated like a slave by the citizens of the small town America Dogville. She has arrived in the mountain town on the run from gangsters, and while at first everyone seems welcoming of her, soon they start to want to get everything they can from her. The provocation to her becomes slightly higher and higher with each passing day. She is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the town, and when the gangsters arrive, Stellan Skarsgaard’s farmer uses the opportunity to rape Grace, knowing that she cannot cry out for fear of being discovered. Soon all the other men are taking their turn with Grace, who just lies there and takes it. The most fascinating character in the movie is Tom (Paul Bettany), who holds himself as the moral superior in the town and says he falls in love with Grace. But he does not stand up and defend her against the rapes – he even says that since they are in love, and she’s doing it with every other man in town, they should have sex too. Angry at her rejection, and the fact that she shows his own moral shortcomings, Tom becomes more vengeful, and is responsible for Grace’s further humiliations. The film is essentially a moral test, in which everyone fails. The citizens of Dogville, including the children, act cruelly to a stranger, and when Grace is given an opportunity to forgive them, she doesn’t. When the truth finally comes out, and the gangsters arrive – the leader of which is Grace’s father – Grace exacts her revenge by having the entire town murdered and burnt to the ground. In the most memorable sequence of this revenge, Grace turns the tables on Vera (Patricia Clarkson) who earlier smashed all of Grace’s prized figurines in punishment for being rape by her husband and tells her that she will stop if Grace doesn’t cry. Grace orders Vera’s children murdered in front of her and tells her the same thing. Grace saves Tom from last, and is the only resident who she kills herself. Dogville in von Trier’s masterpiece, as although it recalls some of his earlier films, adds additional layers of complexity to it. Grace is not just another one of his female martyrs, and in Tom he creates the male character who most directly implicates the audience. Dogville is a film that is impossible to forget.

5. Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)
Dustin Hoffman is probably not the first name you would think of when talking about revenge movies, but he is the star of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, one of the best the genre has ever produced. Hoffman plays a timid American mathematician, who moves with his new wife to her small hometown in England. Almost immediately, tension forms between the couple, as Hoffman ignores her to do his work, and she starts flirting with the workmen renovating their house, including a former boyfriend of hers. This leads to what is perhaps the most controversial rape scene of all time, as her former boyfriend rapes the wife, who starts off struggling, then seems to enjoy it, as her old feelings for her come back. But when his friend arrives, and the ex holds her down so that his friend can also rape her, things go wildly out of control. Things get worse when the couple take in the village idiot one night, not knowing that he is wanted for murder. The locals, including the rapists, show up at the house and demand the idiot’s release, but Hoffman knowing that they will kill them all, won’t let them in, leading to one of the most violent showdowns in cinema history. At some point during this showdown, Hoffman’s motive turns from protecting his wife and home, into vengeance for what was done to his wife. As with everything Peckinpah did, Straw Dogs is not as simple as it appears on the surface. It is a complex film about masculinity, rape, and cruelty, murder, and yes, revenge. In the films telling last line, Hoffman admits he doesn’t know his way home – because he no longer has one.

4. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Munich is a different kind of revenge movie, because it is not about personal revenge, but rather the revenge of an entire nation. During the Munich Olympics, a Palestinian terrorist group kidnaps and kills 11 Israeli athletes. In response, Israel drafts its own list of 11 names, those thought responsible for the massacre, and sends an elite group of Mossad agents to track them down, and kill them all. This is eye for an eye type vengeance. The group of assassins, led by Eric Bana, start out believing in their mission, thinking that by pulling off these assassinations, they can make Israel a safer place. But the more people they kill, the heavier the toll it takes on them – and the more they realize that the killing will never stop. As they kill one man, another jumps into his place, and they are forced to kill them as well. The morality of what they are doing gets to the entire group, and leads to several of them being killed, or killing themselves, and Bana eventually retreating for his job, and becoming increasingly paranoid. Munich is, in my mind, Spielberg’s most complex film, and one where he only steps wrong once (I do not know why Bana flashes back to a massacre he was not involved in while having sex with his wife), but remains a truly haunting film. The final image, of the New York skyline with the World Trade Center in the background, represents the best ending of his career.

3. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2002/2003)
Far and away the best, and most entertaining, of the classically structured revenge movies – where a character is wronged and goes on a killing spree to get their revenge. In this case, it is Uma Thurman’s The Bride, who is attacked on her wedding day by four of her former associates, all working for Bill (David Carradine), who was her boss and lover. Very pregnant at the time of the attack, she wakes up years later from a coma, without her child, and sets out for revenge. One elaborate fight sequence follows another in the movie, none more than the showdown at a Japanese club, where Thurman dispatches countless bad guys with her Hattori Hanzo sword. Over the course of two movies, and four hours, Tarantino mixes together all the elements of exploitation cinema he has loved over the years to make a wildly imaginative, over the top revenge masterpiece. When the final showdown between The Bride and Bill finally does come, we are not disappointed. A true masterpiece of exploitation cinema.

2. Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Michael Haneke’s Cache is undeniably a revenge film, yet it is one where even after the end credits role, we are left wondering just who it was who set the events of the film in motion. Georges (Daniel Auteil) and Anna (Juliette Binoche) are an upper middle class couple living in Paris with their teenage son Pierrot. One day, a mysterious videotape arrives on their doorstep. The tape is nothing more than a static shot of their home. More videotapes, showing the same thing, arrive, these ones accompanied by crude, bloody drawings that look like the work of a child. Georges follows they clues, and eventually finds himself confronted with someone out of his past. This is Majid, who is a French Algerian, whose parents were killed in the Paris protests of 1961, and at one point was going to be adopted by Georges parents. Georges, then a jealous six year old, enacted a plan that ensured this would not happen. Georges will confront Majid, and his son, several times, but both deny involvement with the tapes. Eventually, Majid will do something completely shocking in front of Georges, to punish him for his past wrongdoings. At this point, we think that we have everything figured out, but the final shot in the movie calls everything into question. As we watch, we see Georges’ son and Majid’s son, talk to each other on the steps of a school, but we cannot hear what is being said. These characters have no reason to know each other, at least not one we are shown. So why are the talking? And, perhaps more disturbingly, the shot itself is much like those videos delivered to Georges and Anna’s door, as it is static and unmoving. It is obvious that Georges was the subject of a revenge scheme by someone, but by the end of the movie, we are still not sure who that was – or even if he is the only target, and more disturbingly, if it is even all over when the credits role.

1. Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
Oldboy deserves the top spot on this list, even if it is not necessarily the best film on it, because the revenge scheme in this movie is far and away the most elaborate in movie history. Oh Dae-su gets drunk on his daughter’s birthday, and is arrested. After being bailed out by a friend, he calls home. The friend then takes the phone to talk to his wife, and when he turns around Oh Dae-su is gone. He awakens days later in a hotel room in which he cannot escape, and which he will be kept for the next 15 years. Flirting with insanity, he passes his time shadowboxing, watching TV and tattooing himself. Then he is released one day without warning, and sets about tracking down the men who kept him there for all those years, hell-bent on revenge. Little does he realize, that his being kept there was part of an elaborate revenge plot against him. As Dae-su tries to find out what happened to him, he meets, falls in love and has sex with a younger woman – Mi-Do. When he finally gets to confront his kidnapper, Woo-Jin, he discovers why he was held captive for all those years, and the shocking truth about Mi-Do. The film is graphically violent, frighteningly intense, and disturbing in its implications of incest. The film is a definite mind fuck, but director Park is after something deeper here. The idea of revenge is taboo in his native Korea, and his revenge trilogy (as including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) all confront the idea head on, while pulling no punches in its implications. The ending of the movie is disturbingly ambigious, as we are left wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

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