With Blue Ruin set to finally end its stroll along the critical red carpet with a long-awaiting release this week, it serves as a welcome reminder of the value of revenge as a cinematic instrument. From Charles Bronson to Uma Thurman, Straw Dogs to Sweeney Todd, the bloodthirsty pursuit of vengeance has not only offered filmmakers a timeless pathway to character exploration and rapid-fire storytelling, but also a valid excuse for a generous dose of unabashed on-screen nastiness. And if you don’t appreciate some good old-fashioned remorseless violence, what the hell are you doing in a cinema?
Death Wish, Kill Bill and Oldboy are some of the more ubiquitous members of the genre, but here’s five lesser-seen revenge movies that deliver on all counts.
Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
Despite coming amid the disclosure of some questionable views on human equality, two highlights of Mel Gibson’s later career have been raucously throwaway remakes of revenge-genre classics. While, in truth, the original Edge of Darkness – an 80s BBC mini-series – was more a conspiracy drama than the out-and-out revenge story it was restyled as, John Boorman’s unflinching piece of pulp (remade in 1999 as Payback) remains a true genre benchmark.
Lee Marvin plays the thief who methodically imposes his own form of justice on a one-time collaborator who wronged him, left him for dead, and made off with his wife in the process. Or is it all simply his character’s dying fantasy?
As well as boasting the sort of wonderfully artful poster that evokes an entire cinematic era all on its own, Point Blank’s noirsh visuals, unapologetic brutality and narrative ambiguities made it a forerunner for such Hollywood all-timers as The French Connection and The Conversation. And it’s not just Popeye Doyle who owes Marvin a hat-tip, either – Harry Callahan may be New Hollywood’s most enduring pistol-toting maverick, but he certainly wasn’t its first.
The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009)
One critic recently crowned The Godfather Part II’s closing scene as cinema’s finest ever, but the disturbing denouement to this Argentinian thriller certainly belongs in the debate.
The revenge element of the film, though central, lies dormant through much of its plot, which focusses on Ricardo Darin’s criminal-court investigator chasing a long-unsolved murder case and stumbling across all the malignant revelations that such a premise would suggest. The film’s most visceral highlight is a magnificently choreographed chase sequence through the bowels of a heaving, raucous soccer stadium in inner-city Buenos Aires – a scene that shows up a similar set piece in The Dark Knight Rises as easy, empty, effects-driven guff.
Juan Jose Campanella’s film went on to scoop 2010’s Oscar for best foreign-language film from under the nose of Michael Haneke, whose slice of eerie pretentiousness The White Ribbon was thought to have the trophy in the bag. Unexpected maybe, but not unjust.
Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
Scarlett Johansson may have only just brought Glasgow’s windswept parklands and impenetrable accents back into cinema’s popular consciousness, but both were present in Andrea Arnold’s underappreciated drama, now eight years old and another which holds its cards tightly to its chest until late on.
We follow a CCTV-operator Jackie (Kate Dickie) as she identifies, monitors and makes acquaintance with a recently released convict, all to the backdrop of some of Glasgow’s less-than-idyllic council estates. To say the settings are bleak would be an exercise in understatement: it makes Trainspotting look like Downton Abbey.
The motivation behind Jackie’s voyeurism is kept under wraps until the final act, though it’s clear from the start that a rogue act of vengeance is inevitable. When the deed does come – via a used condom – it’s certainly not from the Lee Marvin school of justice-dispensing. But Dickie’s edgy magnetism in the lead role and a central thread of unexplained intrigue make for a pleasing, patient two hours.
Leon (Luc Besson, 1994)
One of the more inescapable films from Hollywood’s outskirts in recent decades, the ultimate quality of Luc Besson’s tale of a hitman who takes an orphaned 12-year-old girl under his wing as an impromptu tutee is perhaps best defined by how plausible and affecting it makes that storyline. Seriously – read that synopsis again and tell yourself the film shouldn’t be laughably bad.
Leon is anything but, though, and its ultimate triumph is also its biggest risk: it plays its absurd scenario pretty much completely straight. Maybe even a bit too straight – rewatching it now, the film’s most striking aspect is just how heavily it hints at some form of a central romance. Gary Oldman’s uninhibited, villainous mania remains a highlight, and his initial act of familial massacre means that cold-hearted revenge is very much at the core of a charmingly warm-hearted story.
Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004)
(Image courtesy of Warp Films)
It’s not far behind Red Road in terms of grainy bleakness, and Shane Meadows’ atmospheric thriller shares with its counterpart an unsparing portrayal of an impoverished, unfashionable slice of Britain rarely seen on the big screen.
Paddy Considine’s sociopathic war veteran has more than a little Travis Bickle about him: disillusioned, socially alienated and grimly determined to cleanse his hometown of low-life criminals, with downtown New York making way for small-town Derbyshire. But where Bickle’s motivations were civic, Considine’s are personal. The men he hunts down are guilty of a crime that becomes slowly apparent as the film plays out, and one whose unrepentant sadism is more than matched in our protagonist’s various acts of retaliation.
With the episodic – even mask-donning – nature of his killings, Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t too far from being a genuine slasher film, although its overriding mood being gloom as opposed to glee means it’s more kitchen sink than Candyman.
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