I am an absolute, unapologetic sucker for revenge films.
Friends have heard me defend The Patriot, which is not a good movie at all. But come on! Mel Gibson looks up from the cooling corpse of his next-oldest son, grabs a handful of rifles from his burning house, and recruits his next two oldest sons to sprint through the woods and ambush the British! He charges out of the woods screaming with a hatchet! And all for revenge!
I liked Man on Fire, even in spite of Tony Scott’s camera antics. Sure, everyone in the film had two settings – histrionic or cold. Sure, the pacing left something to be desired. But come on! Denzel Washington loses his client’s daughter in a firefight. So after getting enough blood back in his body to stumble out of bed, what does he vow?
“I’m gonna kill ‘em. Anyone that was involved. Anybody who profited from it. Anybody who opens their eyes at me.”
And I got similarly excited about Taken, a movie so apparently mediocre that it’ll never get a domestic release (it opened in France in February of this year). The few critics who saw it described it as “paint by numbers.” It looks pretty formulaic (note that none of the protagonists have a last name).
But come on! Tell me you wouldn’t want to growl this into a live telephone:
Jack Bauer. Batman. Inigo Montoya. Jason Bourne. Dirty Harry. People who get beat down, lose the ones they love, and then come back in a blaze of indignation. Why does that speak to me? Why do I get such a primal, unavoidable kick out of that?
I think it speaks to that fundamental animal rage which all of us – who share more than 95% of our DNA with animals – carry. The “laugh in triumph over a defeated foe” that Orwell talks about: the brutal, pre-rational appeal of nationalism. We want to kill, and we want our killing to be sanctioned by a moral code. He hurt my family, therefore it’s okay if I cut off his fingers. He killed my wife, so it’s all right if I slaughter everyone he knows and burn his house to the ground. No impartial jury or outside observer would think that’s a proportional or fair response – but come on! I’m the Good Guy, so my savagery makes me driven. They’re the Bad Guys; their savagery makes them subhuman.
But ultimately, in stories like that, the tissue-thin distinction between Good Guys and Bad Guys suggests more than it divides. We don’t cheer the Good Guy because he did the right thing by stabbing the Bad Guy in the top of the skull. We cheer the Good Guy because he totally fucking killed that dude! Did you see that? We identify with him because he has his reasons – they took my job, they hurt my family, whatever – but that’s secondary*. The chaotic, reptilian roar of victory after bashing someone’s neck seals the deal.
So my love of revenge arises from evolved instincts. I think that’s okay. I recognize and acknowledge it. Indulging in fantasy never hurt anyone, provided you keep it private. It’s the difference between GTA 3 and Columbine. It’s the difference between watching a Briana Banks movie and actually trying to fuck the babysitter. So long as I never take a drunken swing at a bouncer for wrongs real or imagined, I think I’ll be fine.
We all have instincts that we did not choose making decisions for us. I try to stay informed about mine.
* Think about it: if maiming in pursuit of revenge makes him noble, wouldn’t taking the extra effort to keep his family safe in the first place be really noble?