This weekend, “Dead Man Down” finds Colin Farrell out for vengeance on behalf of both his family and his scarred love interest Noomi Rapace. And he’s hardly the first in recent months: from the “Gangster Squad” out to avenge a fallen comrade, to Hansel & Gretel hunting the witch that killed their parents, to Sylvester Stallone & Sung Kang hoping to put a “Bullet to the Head” of Jason Momoa, revenge has been a consistent motivator in many of the films of 2013, and that’s set to continue as the year goes on, with payback proving crucial to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Iron Man 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Wolverine,” “Prisoners,” “Carrie,” “47 Ronin” and many more of the biggest films of the next 12 months.
Of course, this is nothing new: revenge is one of the most common themes in cinema. Hell, some filmmakers seem to focus entirely on it (*cough* Quentin Tarantino). And so with “Dead Man Down” hitting theaters today, we decided to delve into the history of vengeance in cinema, highlighting sixteen notable, revenge movies. We’ve tried to mix the essentials of the genre with some picks that might be less familiar to you, but we of course didn’t have space for everything, so let us know your own favorites in the comments section. Or you could, you know, track us down to avenge your honor or something.
“The Big Heat” (1953)
Surprisingly few film noirs deal with revenge as a plot, and while 1953’s “The Big Heat” has a more straightforward narrative than some of the crime pictures of the period (in many ways, it’s a forerunner to the contemporary action movie), stylistically Fritz Lang‘s film is very much of a piece with the classic film noir. Glenn Ford stars as homicide cop Dave Bannion who, while investigating the death of a colleague, soon discovers how far the tendrils of the local mob, led by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and Vince Stone (an early stand-out turn from Lee Marvin). His inquiries take a tragic turn when his car is blown up by the criminals, with wife Katie inside, causing Bannion to quit the department in order to bring the murderers to justice, with the aid of Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame). It’s now a generic tale sort of premise, and Ford’s charmlessness does the film few favors, but it’s also thrillingly intense, visceral stuff, with a level of violence that you’re surprised ever got past the Code, and a great femme fatale (one who causes the downfall of the villain, and herself, rather than the hero) in Grahame. And Lang, of course, directs the hell out of it, letting the corruption of an entire city (including the straight-arrow, but somewhat heartless Bannion) slowly bubble over. By the end, the cop has his revenge, but any sense that it’ll change things is fairly unconvincing.
Tough as it is to imagine for anyone born after the eighties, there was a time when instead of being a reviled anti-semite and Hollywood pariah, Mel Gibson was actually one of the most high profile and bankable movie stars on the planet. Directing 13th Century Scottish epic “Braveheart” may well have been the peak of his star power, and this fact explains not only the desire of the films backers to have the perma-tanned and not-especially-versatile Australian actor in the lead, but also how such a deeply, deeply silly film went on to win Best Picture and chow down more than $200 million worldwide. Historically accurate this film is not, and this is never better illustrated than in the classic, and utterly bonkers, revenge scene: Alun Armstrong’s eyebrows play Mornay, the duplicitous Scottish noble who betrays William Wallace to the English. Mornay wakes quivering and sweating after a scary dream; a woad-faced Wallace emerging demon-like from a wall of fire. Believing it to be just a dream, Mornay relaxes for about 2 seconds before Wallace barges in to his bedroom on horseback, using the horse to batter down the door. At this Mornay looks understandably apprehensive. The silent and stoic Wallace then mounts Mornay’s bed with the horse, swings his quite-large mace , and crushes the unfortunate betrayers skull as he lies in his bed. Of course, this is only the most direct example in a film that’s all about vengeance: the first act of Randall Wallace (no relation)’s screenplay sees William’s father, brother and new wife (Catherine McCormack) all cut down by the English, inspiring his uprising. It won’t shock you that there’s very little historical evidence for any of this…
“Dead Man’s Shoes” (2004)
An atypically genre-y exercise from the Martin Scorsese of the Midlands, Shane Meadows (“This Is England“), “Dead Man’s Shoes” blends the revenge movie, the horror flick and kitchen-sink realism into a film that might remain one of the directors’ most satisfying pictures. Paddy Considine gives one of his best performances as Richard, a former soldier who returns home to discover that his disabled brother (Toby Kebbell) has been abused physically and mentally by a group of local drug dealers. Donning a creepy gas mask, he sets out to take his vengeance, first toying with the men responsible, then gruesomely offing them one by one. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the plot (beyond a twist involving Kebbell’s character), but Meadows does interesting things with perspective; by spending as much time with the dealers as with Richard, Meadows almost turns the film into an inversion of the slasher film, while keeping everything grounded enough that it never feels overly stylized or unlikely. And by mixing gritty estates with gorgeous Derbyshire landscape and a incongruously effective folk soundtrack by Warp Records that includes Calexico, Richard Hawley and M. Ward, among others, the director gives the revenge movie a very different, and very British, tone. The plotting is perhaps too thin, even for the 86 minute runtime, but it feels like the moment where Meadows really came of age as a filmmaker.
“Death Wish” (1974)
One of the most well-known and successful revenge films in history (which sparked four sequels, one semi-remake (James Wan‘s “Death Sentence“), and a currently-in-development full remake recently vacated by director Joe Carnahan), “Death Wish” is also probably the worst film on this list, but one whose influence and reputation probably means it should figure somewhere here. Based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, the film (directed by Michael Winner, who passed away earlier this year) stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a New York architect whose wife is murdered, and daughter raped, by a gang of local hoodlums (including a young Jeff Goldblum). With the police telling him it’s unlikely the attackers will ever be found, the previously liberal Paul becomes a vigilante, laying down the law (normally in the shape of bullets) on the crime-ridden streets of the city. Unusual for the genre in that it features a man taking out his vengeance not on the people directly responsible (who are never seen again), but on other similar criminals, the film’s reasonably compelling in its depiction of a grubby, pre-Guiliani New York, but abhorrent in its politics (and perhaps more importantly, in its plotting, which mainly just jumps from one mugger-shooting to another). Many of these movies acknowledge that there’s a satisfying power in revenge: only “Death Wish” carries that on to all criminals, everywhere, and he result is borderline fascistic, and makes you want a shower afterwards.
“The Great Silence” (1968)
Though he’s generally overshadowed by countryman Sergio Leone when it comes to the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci was behind a few brutal, violent classics of the genre (most notably the original “Django“), and his finest hour might have come with 1968’s “The Great Silence.” Set, almost uniquely for the genre, among the snowy hills of Utah, in the midst of a terrible blizzard, it toplines “Amour” star Jean-Louis Trintignant (Michael Haneke is an avowed fan of “The Great Silence,” interestingly) as a gunfighter named Silence. As the name might suggest, he’s even more taciturn than the usual Western hero; his vocal cords were cut by the bounty hunters who murdered his parents. As a result, he travels around, killing other bounty hunters by instigating them to draw on him first, but he finds a more specific outlet for his vengeance when he’s hired by Pauline (Vonetta McGee), whose husband has been shot down by the vicious bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski) and his cohorts. Like Corbucci’s other films, it’s ultra violent (it was even banned in some territories) and intriguingly morally nebulous; as Loco is fond of pointing out, he’s been acting firmly within the purview of the law, making Silence a villain to some degree, even if he only operates in (provoked) self defense. The broad scope of views and perspectives is part of what makes this Corbucci’s most interesting film, along with the unforgettable screen presence of Trintignant and Kinski; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the two arthouse icons square off. The film’s probably most famous for its ending; this is the rare film in which vengeance isn’t achieved, as Silence and Pauline are brutally gunned down by Loco, who goes entirely unpunished. Unsurprisingly, Corbucci was forced to shoot another ending for U.S. audiences…
“In The Bedroom” (2001)
Decidedly on the classier end of the spectrum than some of its more exploitation-minded revenge movie cousins, “In The Bedroom” is a film still undervalued by many, dismissed by those who haven’t seen it as ‘Oscar bait’ due to the heavy-handed campaign Harvey Weinstein ran. In fact, the film was an under-the-radar Sundance title, and if you ignored it at the time due to the Miramax label and For Your Consideration ads, it’s definitely time to give the picture a second look, because it’s arguably one of the best American films of the 2000s. Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, and marking the directorial debut of former actor Todd Field, it centers on happily married New England couple Matt & Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), whose son Frank (Nick Stahl) is just back from college and has started seeing an older, soon-to-be-divorced woman (Marisa Tomei). But her ex, Richard (William Mapother) is unhinged and violent, and shockingly, midway through the film, kills Frank, leaving his parents grief-stricken. It’s a slow, graceful picture that’s so careful about wringing out its quiet devastation that you barely notice until it’s snuck up on you, and it’s all the more powerful for it, particularly when it comes to the performances, which are impeccable across the board. The revenge aspect comes late — Matt, frustrated by legal complications in the killer’s trial, and impotent and emasculated otherwise, abducts and kills Richard. Field is interestingly even-handed about it; not afraid to suggest that the further spilling of blood will have real power to heal the Fowlers, while not ignoring the possibility that it may have made things work. It’s a tragedy that Field’s only made one subsequent film: hopefully “The Creed Of Violence” will finally get before cameras next year.