The Myth of Redemptive Violence

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.


2 responses to “The Myth of Redemptive Violence

  1. Funny, I was just discussing this the other day after a screening of Drive Angry. However, it wasn’t in reference to that film (the thought never crossed my mind) but about a suggested ‘next-film-to-watch’: I Spit On Your Grave (2010). I have no desire to ever see that film, just as I saw no value in the original. I have no desire to watch Irreversible, I was repulsed by The Last House On The Left and Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes. I think this is due to my own personal disgust at the depiction of rape in entertainment, no matter how realistically harrowing the act or satisfyingly brutal the subsequent revenge. But I will happily watch Arnold blow away 80 people in Commando to get his wee’un back. I think everyone has their threshold with what they’re willing to accept on-screen. That’s mine. It seems simple revenge (or maybe, even more fundamentally, violence) is yours. And that speaks to my belief in the importance of subjectivism when considering this topic.

    Morally speaking maybe all acts of revenge are equally questionable and our own acceptance of them is dependent on our own experience. Perhaps that which is repeated in cinema – kidnap and/or murder of a loved one – becomes familiar and unchallenging, therefore acceptable, whereas something like rape is still little-seen and taboo, therefore more provocative and shocking. Whatever the case, these judgements are based on what is seen directly, and to ask questions about the real-world consequences of a piece of fantasy entertainment is, I think, to miss the point of action cinema. If you choose to view it that way that’s fine, I would advise avoiding revenge-based action movies as I avoid films by Bros. Farrelly/Wayans. I think acceptance and justification of (pretend) revenge is dependent on the moral standpoint of the individual.

    Maybe it’s that murder with guns is presented so often in war as a jusitfiable means to an end that it becomes equally acceptable to the public at large in their entertainment. Maybe it’s our ability to recognise fantasy or other disparate elements of films (the supernatural in Drive Angry/I Am Number Four, the archaic setting of True Grit/Gladiator, the inherent ridiculousness of Arnold Schwarzenegger) that allows these films, in our minds, to exist in a world that does not adhere to our notions of what is right or wrong. Maybe its the mirror that revenge movies hold up to ourselves, presenting one person’s reaction to a given situation and forcing us to ask ourselves “What would I do?” Or maybe it’s just that we like seeing the bad guys being dispatched with tasty one-liners.

    Whatever the reason, the majority of people don’t ask questions about consequences because they neither want to or need to. These films exists for 90 minutes and that’s where they stay. I can’t take your questions about Arnie’s victims seriously when this (14-year-old) scene exists: Also, a lot of the films you mentioned have more complex endings than your prime example of Commando; in fact there are a couple there that result in the death of the protagonist, which subscribes to that old anti-revenge Chinese proverb “he who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves”.

    The news anchors don’t say “What a hero” because it’s up to the viewer to decide whether what was done was justifiable, right or wrong, just as is the case with this type of film. It’s all subjective. I don’t believe that these “philosophies” on violence being presented in cinema are being either sold to or bought by audiences; in fact I believe the opposite, that violent cinema is informed by humanity’s past and prevalent penchant for violence. Violence is a fundamental part of humanity; it comes from a primal, animalistic place and therefore has been, is and always will be rampant in society. I agree that there is something of an oversaturation of violence in media, but not to depict it at all would be to deny a part of ourselves. Personally I would rather violent movies exist so people can imagine themselves as the hero violently dispatching the bad guys than live in a world of sanitised cinema where people, denied that outlet, decide to commit these kinds of acts in a world where there are consequences. Within the confines of cinema we can exert control, attempt to justify the violence, to create a sort of moral centre for the film. If you think cinematic depiction of violence is wrong, there’s nothing stopping you from making the film that pushes your philosophy that violence has consequences and should be rejected!

    On a side-note, it was pretty naive to suggest that vigilante justice in Northern Ireland has disappeared: Northern Ireland didn’t just flick an ‘off’ switch, all come together, hold hands and sing. These people still exist, and will always exist. They’re not a product of the Troubles, but of a more fundamental latent violent streak in wider society. There are people like you and I that realise that “inflicting violence is neither the simplest nor most effective way of dealing with society’s problems” but there will always be those who disagree.

    This has gone on far longer than I intended and it’s all obviously a hot topic ripe for debate by people more well-informed than I. With a bit more time and research maybe I could come back with something better. However, long story short, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you just agree with my opinion on violence in cinema, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

  2. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to reply. The last two comments on this blog have been like mini-essays. To the extent I almost feel I should have a page on this blog (or monthly feature) publishing people’s well constructed and lengthy comments.

    “to ask questions about the real-world consequences of a piece of fantasy entertainment is, I think, to miss the point of action cinema”

    The problem is, if we merely say things are acceptable because “it’s part of the genre” the we arrive at a place where morally anything goes. Films do have an influence on us, and I have a problem with the depiction of violent revenge because I fear it informs our view of real life situations (especially the decision to go to war).

    “a lot of the films you mentioned have more complex endings than your prime example of Commando”

    Perhaps I should have made this point in the article, but I chose Gladiator and Leon for precisely that reason. Yes the ending may not seem that ‘happy’ However, the issue for me is that we as an audience are expected to accept the fact revenge and violence were their only options. So despite individual fates, the world is a better place because of their ‘righteous’ acts.

    Perhaps it’s helpful to mention a few examples of films which turn that on its head. The ending to Gran Torino, for example, is a good remedy to the myth of redemptive violence. As it goes against everything we thought we knew about Clint Eastwood from 70s cinema.

    Also, Hard Candy is a good example of how to use violence to make the audience feel uncomfortable. In seeing Ellen Page, a fourteen year-old torture a potentially innocent man, we are forced to come to terms with the nature of the violence on screen. Hard Candy is certainly a revenge thriller, but it chooses to depict violence in a much more complex manner than the films we’ve mentioned so far.

    Finally, Funny Games, which I haven’t seen, should probably be required viewing when writing about violent cinema. Like Hard Candy, it goes to great lengths to make the audience feel incredibly uncomfortable about the violence being depicted on screen. I intend to watch it soon, and hopefully it’ll open up some more discussion on this topic.

    ” If you think cinematic depiction of violence is wrong”

    I don’t. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. What I do have a problem with is the depiction of violence as a simple, elegant solution to any problem. Because I believe strongly that isn’t the case.

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