Even though I've eased myself out of feature reviews (print magazines excepted) these days, once in a while I have to make an exception when I find a film particularly provocative, troubling or part of a much bigger picture I've covered in the past. REVENGE (frankly, one of too many films to use that title) qualifies on all counts.
The extreme rape/revenge horror subgenre has never gone without critical controversy and impassioned filmmaker/audience defense in equal proportions. The most notorious example is, of course, the original DAY OF THE WOMAN/I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) which sent Siskel and Ebert off on an absolute tear. And then came MS. .45, which Ebert actually dismissed as "Dog of the Week" in 1981. The list goes on and on, and the field has been represented by male and female filmmakers (the presence of the latter does not automatically qualify a film as 'feminist,' by the way) alike over the years. The one thing the filmmakers (from Meir Zarchi and Abel Ferrara onward) will always agree upon is that these works, no matter how vile and violent, side with the women being victimized on screen and express horror at their treatment... even as the inevitable revenge ranges from "justifiable" on-screen (I SPIT) to ultimately out of control to the point where completely innocent guys are gunned down just for their gender... until another woman steps into put an end to things (MS. .45). To date, this has culminated in an unusually introspective sequel-to-a-remake (I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE III is actually Part 2 of the story following an in-name-only sequel to the remake, if you're still following me) in which the Sarah Butler character deliberately finds ways to justify the graphic execution of men who might otherwise have simply gone about their business. Sometimes I wish I could resurrect Siskel and Ebert temporarily just to get their reactions to the latest breed of thriller. Hell, I never got to ask Ebert why he hated PORKY'S and loved AMERICAN PIE, either. Some things I'll never know.
But oh, do I wish I could ask Roger Ebert about REVENGE. On the surface, this brand-new thriller (the feature debut of writer/director Coralie Fargeat) has nothing new to offer. It's not the first rape/revenge movie by a long shot, it's not the first written and/or directed by a woman, and it's not the first to be hailed as "feminist." It is, however, the first such film to get attention in the wake of a certain well-known, nation-shaking movement known by a simple hashtag. And as such, Shudder Releasing is pushing all the hot buttons it can with its acquisition. Now, I simply saw the red-band trailer on the big screen the week before the movie opened, so I knew what I was in for, straight-up. But Shudder's social media campaign is a different animal entirely. Not only does it avoid the most graphic footage from the actual film, but it loads the ad up with a flurry of sexist, misogynist YouTube user comments ranging from "A woman's place is in the kitchen" to somewhat ruder dismissals... all of which are offered up as genuine, but many of which smack of utter trollbait. They're implying that men can't handle the image of a determined woman putting paid to the opposite gender... well, perhaps I can't speak for the younger generation anymore, but I'm not actually seeing any fresh ground being broken here. Men may well have dominated the field for most of film history, but I welcomed the ass-kicking female decades ago, and surely I'm not the only one. A film like REVENGE isn't going to make me feel personally threatened no matter how it might disturb me.
Nevertheless, I found REVENGE troubling beyond its ultra-violent content, and a lot of that had to do with our protagonist (Matilda Lutz of RINGS as Jen) in this case. If you've followed the genre to date, you may recall that the heroines of the prototype films wanted nothing more than to write a book, make dresses, what have you... and to spend their time alone and in seclusion--until nasty men showed up and forced themselves on them for no other reason than that they were there. Now we have Jen, who has happily accepted the invitation of wealthy, married "Richard" (subtle character name given to Kevin Janssens) to spend the weekend with him at his fabulous desert hideaway (accessible only via helicopter, with no other potential rescue resource around) for plenty of sex and expensive presents. She knows perfectly well that she's helping Richard cheat on his wife and can scarcely be considered "innocent" in that regard. Meanwhile, the camera dictates that we ogle her body in close-up and watch her perform sex acts...
...and even as I type these words I realize that some total stranger (hopefully nobody who knows me in real life) is going to read that and interpret that I'm implying that Jen is "asking for" her eventual horrific abuse. For the record, I say and imply no such thing. I hate disclaimers, but sometimes they're necessary. My point is that the film itself is DARING anybody to make that suggestion, which is not the same thing. And just for the record, there's far more male nudity than female nudity seen on screen in this film.
Once we're introduced to Jen exactly as the film intends us to be introduced to her (we know virtually nothing of her 'normal' life), Richard's two hunting companions (Vincent Colombe as Stan and Guillaume Bouchede as Dmitri) show up a day early for THEIR planned outing and get an eyeful of Jen in the process. And Jen dances provocatively as the gathering turns into an alcohol-soaked party. And one of the visitors assumes that she must be "begging him" for it (yeah, like Jodie Foster did in THE ACCUSED) and that she'll still want it the next morning when Richard is off to get some supplies.
The buildup to the rape is slow and cringe-inducing, but REVENGE (thankfully) parts company with its predecessors by not showing you any more of the actual assault than is absolutely necessary. So Jen is left in the company of the actual rapist, the guy who walked away and let it happen, and the returning Richard (who'll do whatever it takes to make the incident "go away," starting with a lucrative bribe and inevitably resorting to brutality of his own).
And it's here that REVENGE transcends all that has gone on before it. For such a sordid subgenre, REVENGE hits a plateau all its own with amazing macro-photography, sound design, excruciating predicaments and Jen's inspired, hallucinogenic, peyote-fueled transformation from a wounded party girl into a bold and branded warrior. Oh, the men transform, too. The rapist becomes a lizard in her eyes; and if you don't recognize the slob shoveling snacks into his mouth in closeup while leaving Jen to her fate as "the pig," then you just aren't paying attention. Meanwhile, the two of them are nothing but dogs to Richard--to be sent out "hunting" and to be beaten for failure and/or insubordination. Richard doesn't change, though. Richard is THE alpha male. The representation of every wealthy, privileged white guy who ever got away with sexual assault with a mere slap on the wrist. Because he is who he is and because he can buy and sell every one of us. If REVENGE makes any miscalculation it's in the form of a line of dialogue spoken by Richard near the end of the film... if the viewer hasn't figured his attitude out by then, what could possibly be gained by spelling it out with mere words?
Which brings me to my final question. Why REVENGE? Jen may very well get back at her attackers, and there's every reason to believe she'd consider an act of revenge given the opportunity... but such opportunity does not present itself in this situation. These three men are ACTIVELY TRYING TO KILL HER throughout the second half of the film, and there will be no rescue from any outside sources, so Jen is truly fighting for her life and acting in self-defense. She dishes out the bloody violence as well as she takes it... "BUT NO JURY IN AMERICA WOULD EVER CONVICT HER!" If you recognize that reference, go to the head of the class. If you know that it's actually Demi Moore posing for that infamous poster, you get extra credit. And if you know that Demi Moore appeared in PASSION OF MIND in 2000 and that Coralie Fargeat served as second unit director on that very film, consider me gobsmacked. And allow me my amusing distractions as I try to decompress after writing about REVENGE.
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I found it was too unrealistic and cartoony to be disturbing. My wife felt the same way, she laughed quite a bit. I took the movie to be about aliens or some sort of other humanoid species based on how much they were able to bleed without dying. Walking across so much desert without shoes blew me away as well, she must have had some serious calluses! I also appreciated their scoped long-range sniper shotguns, those must have been alien technology
"Regrettable... I was hoping for a colleague, but at least we have
another experimental subject..." -Mesa of Lost Women
another experimental subject..." -Mesa of Lost Women