Vigilante Justice- The Return of the Revenge Film

Is Harry (Michael Caine) taking it too far in his pursuit of revenge?

This is an article I wrote a few weeks back for the website I write for Sound Screen, hope you like it and feel free to post your disagreements and comments .

Revenge is a dish best served cold but  it certainly seems to be (ahem) hot right now in the cinema.  With the recent releases of Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown and F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen and the latest instalment of the Saw franchise, as well as the less bloody Gran Turino last year the revenge film’s popularity certainly isn’t waning. And this is despite the criticisms the genre has received since revenge films like Micheal Winner’s pro-vigilante Death Wish (1974) was branded a ‘poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement’, and legendary film critic Pauline Kael called Sam Peckinpah’s  Straw Dogs (1971) ‘a fascist work of art.’ While others simply see the films as thrilling and fun. So which is it? To answer that question it really comes down to characterisation, the angle taken and the level of violence depicted.

For instance in Law Abiding Citizen Gerald Butler’s character Clyde Shelton seeks revenge on the criminals who kills his family, and anyone associated with letting one of the criminals go free. His revenge involves tampering with the lethal injection that kills one of the criminals insuring his death extra painful and slow, and chopping up the other criminal ,Nick, and then sending the DVD of him doing this to Nick’s home so that his poor innocent daughter sees it. Of course defenders would justify this violence by saying that the legal system is inadequate and complacent, and the only way to achieve satisfying justice is through violence. But does the violence have to be so sadistic? I think not. Silly films like this condone the death penalty and in turn the possible killing of innocent people and also dehumanise people as animals who deserve to be killed, which is certainly a worryingly Fascist view of things. As more nuanced films like Dead Man Walking (1995) show criminals are also people with their own feelings and histories, much as it’s easier to simply classify people as evil.

Harry Brown is marginally better because it at least doesn’t take such pleasure in the violence, and it makes a furtive attempt to show why the hoodies that Micheal Caine’s character kills off are the way they are. But the film still tacitly approves of what Harry Brown is doing, while showing that Brown is unrepentant about what he is doing. Unlike Death Wish which as one critic said  showed that murder did at least make an impression on Charles Bronson’s character (he feels physically sick after his first murder).

When it comes to the Saw films, well, that’s a different kettle of fish, in this case we could say that due to its genre as a horror film that it rises above other horror films for at least giving it’s terminally ill killer, Jigsaw,  a moral reason for killing.  Namely that of making ungrateful and uncaring people appreciate their life. So in Saw VI the chief victims are predatory lenders who are made to give a pound of their flesh, and a cold insurance company executive who failed to lend Jigsaw the money for an operation. Although we can’t rule out the fact that many people will ignore the morality and instead look forward to the ever more horrifying nature of people’s deaths, and let’s face it how many more Saw films do we need?

Earlier revenge films such as Tarantino’s  Kill Bill (2003-4)could probably be forgiven for turning the violence into something cartoonish and fantastical, rooted in self-conscious cinematic references which gave it more license to go wild. The films also gave us an invigoratingly feisty female heroine reversing the usual gender roles. Batman also comes from a fantastical place of course-although it is tending to become more rooted in realism as the franchise continue- and the recent Dark Knight (2008) did attempt to make Batman a darker character aware of the dubious morality implicit in his actions. It further made the amorality evident in the fact that Bale’s Batman inspired less well-meaning imitation killings. Shane Meadow’s brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) meanwhile, showed that violent revenge has it consequences. As Paddy Considine’s Richard has to admit that he has become as much a monster as the people-local bullies who drove his mentally disabled brother to suicide- who he has killed and so knows that ultimately must die as well.

But what exactly keeps these films popular? The answer is that they tap into our darkest primal desires, desires for violent retribution that we are civilised enough to know are wrong but still exist in our thoughts, seeking their release in films (which is probably partly why I was so disappointed (Spoiler) in the merely amusing non-violent revenge meted out to the arms-dealers in the upcoming Jeunet film Micmacs). And there is a general frustration at the slowness of bureaucracy, the red tape and get-out clauses of the law and the statistics fixated police. Daily reports of murders, kidnappings, knife crimes and thefts unresolved only cements this frustration.  So revenge films will always be popular whatever angle they take, let’s just hope that they don’t all take the angle that the stupidly shadenfreude-heavy Law Abiding Citizen does.



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