“Hard Candy,” 2006
Before “Juno” rocketed Ellen Page into the celeb stratosphere, the petite acting powerhouse honed her skills (and sharpened her knives) in this 2006 revenge thriller. Starring Page as a seemingly helpless 14-year-old Haley, known in chatrooms as “Thonggirl14,” “Hard Candy” follows her relationship with a much older man (Patrick Wilson) as she slickly transitions from victim to predator. Handily manipulating her would-be abuser, Haley relies on torment rather than torture to enact her revenge, with results that are nothing less than sickening. Strong performances from Page and Wilson anchor David Slade’s barbed and economic debut, but this moral tale-cum-revenge thriller is nothing short of shocking even ten years after its release. “Hard Candy’s” moral ambiguities ensure its grosser quirks remain carefully unsatisfying, but that doesn’t make the film any easier to watch.
“Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2,” 2003 and 2004
While many revenge tales raise deeper questions about perpetual cycles of violence and their effect on human nature, the “Kill Bill” films throw any pretext of intellectualism out the window in favor of raw, reckless, red-splattered payback that almost makes vengeance look fun. Uma Thurman plays a deadly assassin known as “The Bride” who will stop at nothing to exterminate her former colleagues who, years before, killed her husband, shot her unborn child and left her for dead. Paying homage to classic kung fu films, Westerns and samurai action epics, “Kill Bill” contained so much balls-to-the-wall action that director Quentin Tarantino had to split it up into two films. While “Volume 1” commits fully to over-the-top fight scenes, “Volume 2” brings in a surprising amount of emotional depth, thanks largely to Uma Thurman’s wonderful performance. We end up with a revenge that is gleefully indulgent and spectacularly violent, but still rationalized by an emotional core.
After first experimenting with non-linear storytelling two years prior on his feature debut, “Following,” Christopher Nolan turned it up a couple notches with “Memento,” a deliciously mind-bending neo-noir made on a shoestring budget. With “Memento,” Nolan injected new life into the revenge flick genre and took the unreliable narrator trope to a new extreme. Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, who suffers from anterograde amnesia, a rare form of short-term memory loss that means he knows just as much about his surroundings as we do. The last thing he remembers before waking up in a motel is his wife being raped and killed before a head injury made him unable to store new memories. With only the help of his Polaroid pictures and his tattoos, an otherwise oblivious Shelby sets out on a quest to kill the man he believes responsible, John G. The film’s bold and intricate structure alternates between telling Leonard’s story forward and backwards. Like a puzzle slowly coming together, the two interweaving threads converge on an unforgettable conclusion. Yet as much as Nolan conceals, he never cheats and the result is a brainy, gritty and gripping thriller that demands repeated viewings.
“Machete” is the Danny Trejo vehicle only some of us knew we needed. Trejo has a staggering 308 credits on IMDb, mostly bit parts in which he plays some kind of thug, henchman or criminal, using notes he presumably took from his own 11-year stint in San Quentin for armed robbery. The film is a feature-length version of a trailer Robert Rodriguez made for “Grindhouse,” a creative reimagining that sets up the indelible Machete, a former Mexican Federale who is betrayed by his corrupt chief to a drug lord (Steven Seagal coming out of an eight-year hiatus from film), as one hell of a force to be reckoned with. When the drug lord kills his wife, he goes on a rampage against the people who betrayed him in a hyperviolent, B-movie style bloodbath.
“The Crow, 1994”
“In the Bedroom,” 2001
Todd Field’s unnerving family drama makes its turn into vengeance late, but a heart-wrenching set-up adds potent emotion and deep feeling to its final twists. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek match wits (and wills) as the Fowlers, a straight-laced New England couple who are driven to distraction by their son’s (Nick Stahl) relationship with an older woman (Marisa Tomei). The family issues are enough to keep tensions pounding for quite awhile, but it’s a series of final acts (like, really final) that push it all over the edge. It’s a well-honed feature with plenty of character work to recommend it, but shocking last acts earn it a place in the modern revenge hall of fame.
Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, 2002, 2003, 2005
With his triple whammy of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and “Oldboy,” Park has crafted a trilogy of tight twists and major payoffs that have breathed new life into the revenge movie hall of fame. Neatly crafted features that are heavy on the details allow viewers to invest (and mightily) with seemingly simple storylines, before Park unleashes prodigious violence and the kind of major reveals that still feel stunning even when you’re talking about them a decade later. (Despite an ill-fated remake, “Oldboy” is still his masterpiece, and one that continues to elevate the genre.)
Notoriously hard to stomach, Gasper Noe’s ground-breaking thriller-mystery-acutally really a horror film “Irreversible” inflicts tremendous violence on both its protagonists and its audience throughout its runtime. Featuring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel as a loving couple, the film’s non-linear storyline unfolds to reveal the truth of their story, including Alex’s (Bellucci) brutal rape and Marcus’ (Cassel) attempts to avenge the crime, all of which are bruising and wildly unsettling. It’s a fully immersive experience, but none one for the faint of heart.
Editor’s Note: Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the premiere of “Remember,” available now exclusively on DIRECTV and in theaters 2/12. “Remember” tells the story of Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), a 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor struggling with memory loss. After discovering that the Nazi guard responsible for the deaths of his family members is living in America under an assumed identity, Zev sets out to deliver long overdue justice. Find out more and how to watch here.