Revenge is one of the great plot drivers. If a character has been harmed we are far more lenient in accepting behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable. A good revenge film shows someone trying to right the wrongs of the world, or find compensation for the original harm. But a bad revenge film can use the concept as an excuse for violence in a way that arguably does a disservice to real life victims of wrongdoing. Here’s a look at revenge in film.
For revenge done well, I suggest we start, like all good blog posts, with an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. In Conan the Barbarian, young Conan (Schwarzenegger) has his family killed by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his men. Once he’s grown up and found himself some muscles he sets out to avenge his family.
This is a good example of revenge primarily because the character of Thulsa Doom hasn’t only killed Conan’s family, he’s the leader of a sinister snake cult responsible for much suffering. Conan’s mission against Doom therefore has benefits other than simply making himself feel better. Also, in this mythological setting we can accept values like honour and the desire to avenge one’s family to an extent we wouldn’t necessarily accept in a film set in modern times.
Likewise in Gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe) goes after revenge “in this life or the next” against the man responsible for the murder of his family. Not only are we helped to care about Maximus by showing he’s good and honourable before his betrayal, but his revenge mission has the added benefit of being for the good of the whole of Rome.
The new Emperor Commodus (Jouaquim Phoenix) has taken power from the Senate and restarted the brutal gladiatorial games. To restore democracy and end the games, Maximus must kill Commodus. If the two didn’t coincide, would it be so easy to sympathise with Maximus’s revenge mission? Possibly not. If the entire film was Maximus going after Commodus, and killing a lot of people in the gladiatorial ring to get there, for the sole end of vengeance, it wouldn’t be nearly as convincing.
For bad examples of revenge in cinema, you can’t get worse than all the films Tarantino has made this century. Tarantino’s work can be divided into his incredibly clever, well written, entertaining gangster films of the 1990s, and his self-indulgent revenge pics of the 2000s. This isn’t to say Kill Bill (1+2), Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are bad films. I liked them all in their own way, and the great Tarantino direction is still there for the most part, but they are all, to greater and lesser extents, excuses for long, bloody, violent action sequences, which is why they are an example of revenge being used badly.
In Kill Bill, the bride (Uma Thurman) has had her wedding destroyed, her fiancé and all her friends and family killed and is put in a coma by the agency she used to work for, headed by Bill (David Cerradine). What follows over the next two films is a variety of stylish but empty action sequences where she takes revenge on Bill’s accomplices.
This is toned down in the second part, where some much needed plot development takes place, but the first film is just a cold, cynical gore fest. Not only does she enact bloody revenge on the people responsible for her downfall, but on swarms of henchmen with whom she had no prior grievance. Tarantino clearly loves violence, but in his 1990s films it felt like a part of the film rather than the point of the film. In Kill Bill the tragedy of the bride is there for the purpose of justifying her actions over the next two films and satisfying Tarantino’s bloodlust.
In Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained he took this further. They’re both less about revenge in the sense that they have a lot more going on, with better characters, better written dialogue and more complex plots, but revenge still plays a huge part, and in some ways is dealt with even more cynically. Rather than go through all the hard work of explaining why someone’s revenge is justified, just put them in a historical context where everyone knows who the bad guys are. Everyone knows Nazis and slave owners are bad, so it’s ok to kill them like animals and enjoy watching it. Queue lots of bloody violence.
Now I actually think these two films are far better than Kill Bill. They have better plots, much better characters, and feel less cartoony overall, but they also represent a low point in terms of cynical use of revenge. The historical contexts allow Tarantino to indulge his violent fantasies while completely ignoring moral quandaries. Using real historical horrors like slavery and the holocaust to justify gratuitous violence in a film is pretty cynical, and someone as clever as Tarantino should know better.
There’s no doubt that the violence in his 21st Century films is there for our entertainment – just watch the trailers [Inglourious Basterds and Djando Unchained] – and the fact he uses real world violence to facilitate that and help the audience to accept it is pretty bad. If I’m watching Commando, Arnie blowing up an island and all its inhabitants to get his daughter back is acceptable as a piece of popcorn fun, but Tarantino’s films seek to have artistic merit too, which is why I find the way he uses revenge problematic.
The criteria I’ve outlined for good and bad revenge films aren’t hard and fast rules. There are always exceptions, and a good revenge flick can be great fun. The most important thing is whether or not the film has good characters we can empathise with and if the ends seem to justify the means.