REVENGE IS SWEET: A Season of Retribution
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, said Gandhi – but he was clearly too busy being a hessian-wearing hippie (or if you’re being pedantic, too busy being dead) to have seen the glorious showdown between Charles Bronson’s vengeful interloper and Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed sadist in the magnificent Once Upon a Time in the West, or the expression on the trussed-up Choi Min-sik’s face as he listens to the parents of the children he has murdered discuss how best to punish him in Park Chan-wook’s stunning Lady Vengeance. It’s moments like these in which cinema best evokes that base yet fundamental human instinct to seek retribution when wronged, and it’s that spirit that runs through my season of revenge films, playing at the Ritzy in August and September.
There are of course countless different films that deal with revenge in some fashion – from Matilda to Commando. The challenge was to find great films in which revenge is the absolute driving force of the plot; in which the entire story is predicated upon a deed which must be avenged, and which all climax in the yearned-for moment of cathartic resolution.
To that end, the titles. Season-opener Point Blank sees British director John Boorman bringing a taste of European cinema to his Hollywood debut; fleetingly reminiscent of Godard or Resnais, and evident in the style and temporal experimentation that characterises the film. At its core, though, beats a heart of cold, simple retribution, as Lee Marvin’s anachronistic, hard-nosed 1950s gangster finds himself in the concrete jungle of 1960s California, killing his way to the top of the secretive organisation standing between him and the money he lost after being double-crossed and left for dead in the opening heist.
Next up is Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, a stylish remake of the 1962 original whose stars Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum both make cameo appearances in the 1991 film, and whose distinction between good and evil was fairly un-ambivalent. By contrast, Scorsese’s update concocts a heady cocktail of Catholic guilt, glorified masculinity and sexual desire; giving Robert De Niro’s charming but dangerously unhinged ex-con a semi-legitimate motive for his chilling harassment of Nick Nolte’s lawyer – himself no moral bastion. The iconic riverboat climax is, consequently, a cauldron of moral ambiguity, challenging even those with the surest moral compass to know where their sympathies lie.
Playing similarly upon the moral questionability of revenge is The Page Turner. Several years after successful recitalist Ariane Fouchécort critically distracts the young Mélanie during a crucial piano exam by vainly signing an autograph, Mélanie manages to gain employment with Ariane’s husband, and works her way with ominous efficiency into the family’s life. Despite disingenuously depicting the vapid self-obsession of the wealthy Fouchécorts’ lifestyle, the film makes no judgement over whether Ariane’s crime merits the scale of Mélanie’s ruthlessly enacted vengeance – offering only the cruel satisfaction of her success.
A good deal less morally ambiguous, Once Upon a Time in the West’s revenge plot is nevertheless an entangled affair,with several players seeking retribution for various misdeeds, most prominently the cold-blooded slaying of a landowner and his young family early in the plot. At the centre, though, is Bronson’s enigmatic, harmonica-playing stranger; out for revenge against hired killer Frank (Fonda, playing superbly against type). Pitched to perfection and carried along upon Morricone’s typically stirring score, the film withholds Bronson’s motive until the death, with a vintage Leone showdown.
And we end with Lady Vengeance – a personal favourite. The final instalment of Park’s “vengeance trilogy” leaves precursor Oldboy to eat its heart out, with a darkly compelling tale of child-murder, wrongful imprisonment, and surely the most perfect act of revenge ever likely to be committed to film. Bloody, engrossing, and exquisitely realised, the film’s sentiments are encapsulated when, upon being asked by a gunsmith why she has ordered an impractical but intricately detailed pistol as her weapon of vengeance, protagonist Geum-Ja replies that “everything must be beautiful.” In the same fashion, Park marries the innate and carnal desire for revenge with peerless visual exuberance and style. Simply delicious.
So there you have it. Five tributes to the pleasure of payback, each one a juicy, cordon-bleu steak of a revenge movie. Enjoy – but not too much, you sadists…
By Tim Rogerson
Point Blank, Friday 5 August, 9pm
Cape Fear, Friday 19 August, 6.15pm
The Page Turner, Friday 26 August, 6.15pm
Once Upon a Time in the West, Friday 2 September, 8.30pm
Lady Vengeance, Friday 9 September, 9.10pm
For bookings see the Ritzy website, or call 0871 902 5739.