Tom Jolliffe offers up ten essential revenge films…
A dish best served cold. The humble revenge film. It’s a long tried and tested formula which still proves immensely popular. There have been innumerable films but that overriding quest for vengeance is always there.
Picking 10 essential films in such a wide and all encompassing genre is difficult, particularly as some films, like The Godfather, certainly have revenge within, but would be difficult to classify as a straight up revenge film.
So here we have, a diverse selection of revenge themed films:
Michael Winners exploitation classic from the early 70’s was greeted with scathing reviews. Its subsequent sequels, which get progressively crazier (culminating in particular with Cannon’s entries into the genre) were trashier (but enjoyable). Representing the darkest in societal vigilante wish fulfilment, Winner was accused of glorifying vigilante acts and violence.
There may be some truth to that, whilst some of the stereotyping is a little dated these days, but it’s easy to forget that the original film wasn’t about an unstoppable killing machine that Charles Bronson would later become in the sequels. He’s a conventional family man, pushed by tragedy, dealing with loss and looking to fight back against the crime ridden streets. Bronson seeks revenge in a vintage slice of 70’s era revenge. It’s got some prescient themes and has been re-appraised over the years.
An absolute great in British cinema with Michael Caine at the top of his game. Caine is imposing, menacing and unstoppable as Jack Carter, seeking revenge for his murdered brother.
Brilliantly directed by Mike Hodges, the film looks fantastic, with some stunning photography by Wolfgang Suschitzky. The Newcastle setting in early 70’s England looks suitably grim, grey and dreary but becomes almost a character in itself after Carter travels back ‘home’ from swinging London. Likewise the film has an absolutely iconic score from Roy Budd. Get Carter is unmissable revenge cinema and essential British cinema too.
Dead Man’s Shoes
Keeping in Britain, in working class Northern areas, we have this entry from Shane Meadows. His naturalistic style and penchant for mixing inexperienced actors with the more established, and leaning on a little improvisation here and there, create some interesting results.
For the moments which don’t quite come off here (and Meadows would certainly perfect his style with This Is England) this film still has some great moments. With a lead who has a struggle to distinguish reality, this delves more into genre fare than Meadows probably ever has, whilst the film has a satisfying conclusion. Above all though, it’s an absolutely spine-tingling and monumental performance from Paddy Considine that really carries this film.
The late Brandon Lee seemed destined for super stardom beyond The Crow. Alex Proyas’s gorgeous looking adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel was a wonderful platform for Lee’s talents as not only an ass-kicking action man but a skilled and extremely charismatic actor.
The film, all tragedy aside is a cult classic and rightly so. As well as the effortlessly engaging Lee, the film is blessed with a string of fantastic villains like Tony Todd, David Patrick Kelly, Bai Ling and Michael Wincott (who is fantastic). In an era of comic book films that feel light on individuality, and often lack memorable villains and interesting heroes, we have The Crow here, which is visually dynamic and loaded with great performers (and an absolutely killer soundtrack). Best comic book film ever? It just might be.
A nice variation on the revenge genre. There are two types of revenge film generally. One sees a Bronson-esque badass who goes out to gain revenge. They’re badass already but now they’re pissed. The second type sees someone more unexpected driven to revenge. By the end of the film they’ve basically become Bronson.
The brilliance of Blue Ruin lies in the fact that our vigilante anti-hero is a vagrant, who has spent years away from his home town in the aftermath of his parents being murdered. He discovers his parent’s killer has been released (a member of a nefarious local family). Dwight (Macon Blair) then haphazardly decides to seek revenge, despite being hopelessly unprepared, physically unimpressive and unskilled in doing so.
Jeremy Saulniers intelligent, gripping and beautifully shot revenge tail is the anti-Death Wish and has an engaging and unique revenge film protagonist.
Another exploitation entry. Abel Ferrara’s cult film Ms .45. Ferrara doesn’t do anything by half and this is amped up with excessive style and no shortage of glorification.
As a mute seamstress who is raped twice before bludgeoning her second attacker and then a subsequent killing spree, Zoe Lund is absolutely magnetic. This is vintage exploitation with Ferrara’s inimitable style with a loads of energy and gritty, visceral style.
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone reached the absolute peak of his powers with this glorious and gorgeous revenge Western. Charles Bronson, who may well be the most iconic exponent of cinematic revenge, plays ‘Harmonica’ hunting down the villainous Henry Fonda in a life spent seeking vengeance.
The film is impeccably shot. The set pieces are stunning. Bronson does stoicism exceptionally well, while Fonda’s piercing eyed villainy is utterly iconic here. Envelope all this with Ennio Morricone’s classic score and you have yourself a masterpiece.
There are a number of brilliant revenge films in Korea. Oldboy of course is the crowning third of Chan-Wook Park’s classic vengeance trilogy. They’re all certainly excellent examples of the genre but Oldboy just has those added layers of iconic brilliance.
This twisted tail has a man locked up for 15 years by a mysterious and unknown tormentor. He comes out seeking revenge, drawn further into a twisted and demented game. With awesome visuals and some truly breathtaking set pieces and shocking moments, Oldboy is extreme cinema at its most visceral and artistically engaging.
A revenge film played in reverse? Guy Pearce enacts his moment of revenge at the films beginning, at which point we go back and see how he got to that finite moment. Chris Nolan’s thriller took the world by storm. It felt different, intelligent and exciting to have a fairly standard tale of revenge given the added complexity of playing from end to beginning, with an unreliable protagonist (due to him being unable to form long term memory).
It’s an absolutely supremely crafted film, that still remains Nolan’s best work, whilst the cast including Guy Pearce, and Matrix escapees Joe Pantoliano and Carrie Ann Moss are excellent. David Julyan’s low key and atmospheric score is also very effective.
The Virgin Spring
A film from Ingmar Bergman with a theme of revenge isn’t going to be entirely atypical of the genre, and of course it proves so, with a definite shift to faith and repenting in the latter part of the film.
A group of goat herders rape and murder a girl in 14th century Sweden. Later they seek refuge, but unbeknown to them, they seek solace at their victim’s family home. When the parents (Max von Sydow as the vengeful father) find out they exact revenge. Tore (Sydow) then sets out to atone for his actions by building a church at the place his daughter was murdered. The film is another exceptional entry in Bergman’s canon, and would go on to inspire Wes Craven’s notorious horror The Last House on the Left.
What is your favourite revenge film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter page @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/