The revenge thriller is a story almost as old as cinema itself. It concerns a character being wronged, normally in the first act of the movie, and their attempts to put things right by getting revenge on those who have hurt them.
Examples of this type of film range from Kill Bill to Gladiator to Leon to Commando.
They all exist in a fantastical world where an act is inflicted upon the protagonist, and the authorities are unable to help them. The protagonists then take it upon themselves to inflict revenge. And of course they happen to have the means to do precisely that.
This type of film is worryingly common within Hollywood today. If you take the UK release schedule for February 2011, for example, you’ll see True Grit, Drive Angry, and I Am Number Four all fit this description.
It seems as though Hollywood is so intent on showing us violence, that they will create the most unlikely of scenarios to justify its righteous existence. It creates scenarios which give the audience an excuse to relish violence being inflicted on men who clearly deserve it.
Despite how common place this type of violence is in Hollywood films, real life is rarely so simple. When was the last time you watched the news, for example, and heard about a vigilante inflicting horrifically violent revenge followed by the news anchor remarking “what a hero”.
I grew up in Northern Ireland, where the news was awash with violence on a weekly basis. After thirty years of these types of revenge killings, the people of my province realised enough was enough. They realised violent revenge only begets more violent revenge. They realised inflicting violence was neither the simplest nor most effective way of dealing with their society’s problems.
If one considers a film such as Commando, it’s interesting to see how differently violence is viewed. In it Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter is kidnapped, and he spends the film violently inflicting retribution on everyone involved. Until finally he rescues his daughter, and they both live happily ever after.
Obviously such a film is only really interested in creating an entertaining experience for its audience. However, it’s interesting to consider the questions it doesn’t ask:
What impact will the kidnapping have on Arnie’s daughter? Will she be able to sleep at night? Will Arnie wake up from nightmare having killed literally hundreds of people? Will he ever be able to trust anyone again, for fear they may take his child? What of the families of all Arnie’s victims? What will they make of some American coming in and killing their loved one’s? Will they be interested in revenge?
And so on and so forth. The problem with these revenge thriller films is that they too often fail to recognise the real consequences violence has on so many people. Such attitudes seep into public opinion, especially with regard to foreign policy and war.
America’s reaction to 9/11 saw a country intent on violent revenge. The situation was simple. There was a country which actively supported the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the twin towers. That regime must be stopped using violent means.
Within a few months, the Taliban government was defeated. Revenge was carried out. The credits rolled. The End.
Only almost ten years on, we know that’s not the case. Revenge is never simple. No matter what the movies tell us.
Films are made for entertainment. However, behind that entertainment are philosophies filmmakers believe audiences will buy into. One of these is the myth of redemptive violence. That revenge can be carried out simply, neatly and effectively and everyone can go home happy. The problem is no one ever does. Violence is messy, horrible and its consequences can span generations. But no one wants to see a film about that.