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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge film “Kill Bill” is easily the most obvious pick on this list, but as a whopping two-parter that spans about four and a half hours, it’s the modern day mother of revenge movies, and we’d be remiss if we omitted it (also, you’d hate us). In case you’ve lived under a rock, it’s about a bride, a former member of an assassination squad, who is betrayed and left for dead by her former leader and lover. The story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), often told in flashback, spans several continents and eras, including time in Japan, China and several parts of the U.S. What can we add to the “Kill Bill” films that hasn’t already been said? Well, the first one is more lean and mean, arguably the tighter film and more of a kung-fu movie more than anything else. The second one, much slower in pace, but with more inspired moments, is part samurai/kung-fu training film and part modern spaghetti western. It’s the more rambling of the two, but arguably has more soul. Perhaps the most significant element of the “Kill Bill” films is that they mark a pivotal point in Tarantino’s career. The movies began an era where he would recontextualize/recycle/pilfer old movie scores for his films, and mash up his favorite genres for his own ends (though “Jackie Brown” was arguably a slightly obvious mash-up of the ‘70s afro exploitation movie and ‘70s crime movie). And, perhaps most importantly, the films gave Tarantino the ego boost to write long, wandering narratives that need not adhere to studio notes or the accepted nature of three-act structures, for better or worse.
One of the more convoluted and wide-ranging revenge plots on this list — and a rare comic cinematic take on vengeance, Ealing comedy classic “Kind Hearts and Coronets” might not be obviously filed under the category ‘revenge movie,’ but you’d be forgetting its protagonists motivations if you defined it as anything but that. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is a scion of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family in Edwardian England. But his mother was disowned by the rest of her relatives for eloping with an Italian opera singer. She died in poverty, with the D’Ascoynes refusing to even let her be buried in the family vault, while Louis is shunned and refused employment by them. As a result, he sets out to take the title of Duke of Chalfont for himself by systematically offing the relatives who stand between them, every one of which is played, hilariously, by Alec Guinness. We shouldn’t have to sing the praises of Robert Hamer‘s film here; it’s an indisputable pitch-black comedy classic from the first scene to the last. But it’s worth recalling the vengeful backstory next time you watch it: it’s an incisive and smart look at class and snobbery in Britain (Edwardian or otherwise), even if it was probably wise, in terms of avoiding ugly stereotypes, to make Louis’ heritage Italian, rather than Jewish as it is in the book.
If you’ve been reading the tweets and interviews by James Mangold about his upcoming film, “The Wolverine,” and its influences, you might think the oft-namechecked ‘Josey Wales’ is a raw, bloody and brutal revenge movie (the type he says he’s aspiring to make). And while brutal events do take place and the body counts were probably pretty shocking for their time, ‘Josey Wales,’ is almost tame by today’s standards. But much more significantly, its tone and mood is far less dark and much more comedic than you’d expect. And the revenge therein is very circuitous. Clint Eastwood stars and directs his fifth feature-length film as the titular Josey Wales, a simple Missouri farmer whose life is ripped away from him when his wife and son are slaughtered by a group of rogue Red Leg soldiers post Civil War conclusion. Left with nothing, Wales joins another gang of pro-Confederate Bushwackers tracking the same men, and swears revenge. He cuts a swath through West Texas, killing anyone who gets in his way, including gunning down an army of Red Leg soldiers with a Gatling gun. Wales’ reputation soon grows and bounties mount up on his head. But on the path to revenge, and despite wanting to be a lone wolf, he befriends an old Indian and a young squaw, and Wales softens. He and his friends rescue some Kentucky wagon train pioneers and they eventually settle down together on a farm as a cooperative commune. Wales then calls a truce with local indian warriors and reveals a side of himself that prefers life to bloodshed. Revenge, however, has a way of finding him, even when he’s made his peace with the past. Well shot, directed and paced, this is easily one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts and a Western up there with some of Sergio Leone’s best.
The Mel Gibson-starring, Brian Helgeland-directed “Payback” isn’t a terrible film, especially in its more recent Director’s Cut guise. But as a take on the same source material as John Boorman‘s stone-cold-classic “Point Blank” (like the later film, based on “The Hunter” by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake), it doesn’t make much of an argument for the necessity of its existence. In the original, Lee Marvin stars as Walker (rather than the Parker of the novel — a character seen only a couple of months ago on screen in the form of Jason Statham), a criminal who’s double-crossed by his best friend Reese (John Vernon), who makes off with both Walker’s wife, and $93,000 that he’s owed. Things are complicated because Reese has used the money to pay his debts to a secret syndicate known as the Organization, who aren’t willing to give up such a hefty sum without a fight. Marvin, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Cat Ballou,” personally picked out the then-unknown Boorman for the film, and it’s one of the smartest decisions he ever made; Boorman brings a zippy, New Wave style to the film, a fractured timeline and dream-like feel proving endlessly influential, and genuinely groundbreaking for the genre. But it’s not just an empty stylistic showcase; its investigation into the grubby side of capitalism has real smarts, and in Marvin’s Walker, all kinds of wounded pathos. A genuine crime classic that’s barely aged a day, and a good argument that “The Hunter” should just be left alone as source material from here on out.
As far as “things to get revenge for,” it doesn’t get much more devastating than the 1972 Olympics massacre, wherein 11 members of the Israel Olympics team were held hostage and eventually murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group. In “Munich,” based on a supposedly true story, the Israeli government puts a team together to track down those they feel were responsible in the attack. Of course, revenge is never the kicky thrill one makes it out to be, and the moral implications of the murders weigh heavy on the squad, led by a young father played by Eric Bana. Spielberg often stages the killings as a series of potentially fatal flaws – a kind of labyrinthine game of Mouse Trap that could go horribly wrong (and often does) – and uses all of his remarkable tools as a filmmaker to make them as nail-bitingly suspenseful as they possibly could be. There’s a dense atmosphere of the claustrophobic, paranoid thrillers of the seventies, along with the piquant social commentary and conversation about getting lost in the mad fog of revenge. Easily one of the best revenge movies of all time, and one of director Steven Spielberg‘s most provocative works to date (weird that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner would first collaborate on something so vitally alive and then follow it up with the dusty, hermetically sealed “Lincoln,” which feels less like a movie than a historical diorama).
Having won an Oscar for her short film “Wasp,” British director Andrea Arnold made her feature debut with the wrenching “Red Road,” a film that might not look like a revenge tale on the surface, but certainly puts its cards on the tables by the end. The first of the mooted “Advance Party” trilogy cooked up by Lars Von Trier & Lone Scherfig, which would have been made up of a trilogy of films featuring many of the same Glaswegian characters (plans crumbled when Morag McKinnon, director of the second film, “Donkeys,” was forced to recast an actor, and the third film was never shot), it centers on Jackie (Kate Dickie, giving an astonishing performance), a lonely, isolated CCTV operator who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her screens, Clyde (Tony Curran). She gets closer and closer to him, the pair eventually sleeping together. And suddenly, it’s revealed exactly why she’s been tracking him down across the film: when he was still a drug addict, Clyde killed her family in a hit-and-run, and she’s planning to frame him for her rape. Obviously, a plotline like this means walking on very thin ice, but Arnold gets the delicate balance just right; you’re horrified by Jackie’s action, but so embedded with the performance at this stage that you go with her. Ultimately, Jackie pulls back, dropping the charges and talking to Clyde about her own guilt about the deaths. But even though she doesn’t carry it through, it remains one of the most searing and gut-wrenching revenge movies, and a sign that Arnold was a serious talent (which she’s since delivered on with “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights“).
A bleak, violent, sexy-as-hell thriller, “Revenge” is one of Tony Scott‘s true masterpieces. Since “Revenge” has a number of truly surprising twists and turns, we’re going to go light on the plot specifics, but will say that Kevin Costner is an ex-aviator who goes to Mexico at the request of his old friend (played by Anthony Quinn, with his “menace-o-meter” turned up to 11). Said friend has a young wife (Madeleine Stowe) who Costner just cannot resist. What follows is a brutal revenge tale that feels, in many superficial and spiritual ways, like Scott’s lone Western. The late filmmaker has an unflinching eye when it comes to both sexuality and violence, which turned off a lot of viewers when it was initially released (and befuddled the film’s producers). In the years since, Scott has constructed a more streamlined “director’s cut” for home video, which, surprisingly, comes in at about 20 minutes shorter than the theatrical exhibition. There are a number of reasons to watch and adore “Revenge,” from Costner’s conflicted performance to Jack Nitzsche’s score and the sun-bleached cinematography from Jeffrey Kimball. But ultimately, the film remains Scott’s most mournful and humane story, a film that is stylistically admirable but, above all else, emotionally engaging. An unheralded masterwork and the most compelling argument against stuck up cineastes who claim the director is “just some flashy hack.”
The premise of “Rolling Thunder,” and some of the particulars of the plot, would be laughably ludicrous if they weren’t so chilling. In short, a Vietnam veteran and former POW (William Devane) returns home, gets awarded by his town for his service for his country with a new Cadillac and a large stack of silver dollars (apparently they were out of magic beans). Some lowlifes come and try to steal his silver dollars and end up killing Devane’s wife, son, and a local policeman his wife had been having an affair with. The thugs also mangle Devane’s hand in the garbage disposal, leaving him with a hook (yes, seriously – and it’s only slightly less absurd than it sounds). With the help of a similarly disturbed fellow vet (Tommy Lee Jones, looking as “fresh faced” as he ever has), he looks to track down the bandits that took his life away just as he was getting it back together. With a script co-written by “Taxi Driver” scribe Paul Schrader, there are deep psychological undercurrents racing through “Rolling Thunder” (including Devane’s delicate mental state following his imprisonment overseas and the shaky familial dynamics when he returns) but it also works as a balls-to-the-wall late-night revenge movie. Our favorite moment happens late in the film, when Devane and Jones have tracked down the bandits to a South of the Border whorehouse. Jones is sitting with a prostitute, about to have sex, but the only thing he’s really excited about is going into the next room and killing a bunch of people. It’s emblematic of the movie – wryly humorous and queasily uncomfortable. “Rolling Thunder” is one of the decade’s very best movies, all the more so for being criminally overlooked upon its initial release.
Even with Quentin Tarantino working, no one’s exemplified the 21st century revenge movie better than Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, with a trilogy of films (two of which go as far to have the word “vengeance” in the title). First up, in 2002, was “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” which sees a factory executive and his deaf-mute employee become embroiled in a bitter back-and-forth of retribution and vengeance. Next, and most famous of the three, was 2003’s “Oldboy” (currently being remade by Spike Lee), about a man released from 15 year of captivity, who sets out to avenge himself against the person responsible. And finally, there was 2005’s “Lady Vengeance,” about a woman wrongfully convicted of child murder, who’s released from prison and goes out to track down the real killer. The first is the most complex, mature, and arguably the best. The second (based on a popular Manga) is the boldest, the most iconic and the most entertaining. The third is arguably the most conventional, and probably the least effective, but packs a real emotional punch. But all three are bravura pieces of filmmaking, never less than gripping and absorbing, and pretty much must-sees.
As you might expect, an Ingmar Bergman revenge movie is a very different beast from any other revenge movie, even if it did prove to be the inspiration for Wes Craven‘s controversial exploitation horror “The Last House on the Left” in the process. Bergman’s 1960 drama, which won the filmmaker his first Best Foreign Language film Oscar (he’d take the prize again the following year, for “Through A Glass Darkly“), is set in medieval Sweden, and centers on Karin (Birgitta Valberg), who goes out to deliver some candles to a nearby church, only to be raped and murdered by two local herdsmen (accompanied by a third younger man). The trio then take shelter, unknowingly, with the girls’ parents, Tore (Max Von Sydow) and Mareta (Birgitta Valberg). The father realizes what’s taken place, and murders the three men, before vowing to build a church in her name to help atone for the killings. Based on an old Swedish ballad, and later labelled ‘an aberration’ by the director, it’s a simple and direct tale, but no less powerful for it. It’s actually surprising, when looking over these films, how few of them actually address religion — vengeance not being a particularly Christian quality, we guess — but that’s certainly not the case here, Bergman using Karin’s tragic death, and Von Sydow’s subsequent actions, as a way of examining faith, and the existence of God. For all that, for a film more than fifty years old at this point, it’s still hard to watch in its brutality, making it one of the filmmaker’s most atypical pictures, but perhaps one of his richest with it.
Honorable Mentions: Others we didn’t quite have the space for/didn’t feel strongly enough about included “Death Proof,” “Gladiator,” “The Count Of Monte Cristo,” “The Crow,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Cape Fear,” “Get Carter,” “I Saw The Devil,” “Confessions,” “Vengeance Valley,” “Memento,” “Death Rides A Horse” and “Revanche.” Anything else we’ve missed? Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Kieran McMahon, Rodrigo Perez
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