Having won an Oscar for her short film "Wasp," British director Andrea Arnold made her feature debut with the wrenching "Red Road," a film that might not look like a revenge tale on the surface, but certainly puts its cards on the tables by the end. The first of the mooted "Advance Party" trilogy cooked up by Lars Von Trier & Lone Scherfig, which would have been made up of a trilogy of films featuring many of the same Glaswegian characters (plans crumbled when Morag McKinnon, director of the second film, "Donkeys," was forced to recast an actor, and the third film was never shot), it centers on Jackie (Kate Dickie, giving an astonishing performance), a lonely, isolated CCTV operator who becomes obsessed with a man she sees on her screens, Clyde (Tony Curran). She gets closer and closer to him, the pair eventually sleeping together. And suddenly, it's revealed exactly why she's been tracking him down across the film: when he was still a drug addict, Clyde killed her family in a hit-and-run, and she's planning to frame him for her rape. Obviously, a plotline like this means walking on very thin ice, but Arnold gets the delicate balance just right; you're horrified by Jackie's action, but so embedded with the performance at this stage that you go with her. Ultimately, Jackie pulls back, dropping the charges and talking to Clyde about her own guilt about the deaths. But even though she doesn't carry it through, it remains one of the most searing and gut-wrenching revenge movies, and a sign that Arnold was a serious talent (which she's since delivered on with "Fish Tank" and "Wuthering Heights").
A bleak, violent, sexy-as-hell thriller, "Revenge" is one of Tony Scott's true masterpieces. Since "Revenge" has a number of truly surprising twists and turns, we're going to go light on the plot specifics, but will say that Kevin Costner is an ex-aviator who goes to Mexico at the request of his old friend (played by Anthony Quinn, with his "menace-o-meter" turned up to 11). Said friend has a young wife (Madeleine Stowe) who Costner just cannot resist. What follows is a brutal revenge tale that feels, in many superficial and spiritual ways, like Scott's lone Western. The late filmmaker has an unflinching eye when it comes to both sexuality and violence, which turned off a lot of viewers when it was initially released (and befuddled the film's producers). In the years since, Scott has constructed a more streamlined "director's cut" for home video, which, surprisingly, comes in at about 20 minutes shorter than the theatrical exhibition. There are a number of reasons to watch and adore "Revenge," from Costner's conflicted performance to Jack Nitzsche's score and the sun-bleached cinematography from Jeffrey Kimball. But ultimately, the film remains Scott's most mournful and humane story, a film that is stylistically admirable but, above all else, emotionally engaging. An unheralded masterwork and the most compelling argument against stuck up cineastes who claim the director is "just some flashy hack."
The premise of "Rolling Thunder," and some of the particulars of the plot, would be laughably ludicrous if they weren't so chilling. In short, a Vietnam veteran and former POW (William Devane) returns home, gets awarded by his town for his service for his country with a new Cadillac and a large stack of silver dollars (apparently they were out of magic beans). Some lowlifes come and try to steal his silver dollars and end up killing Devane's wife, son, and a local policeman his wife had been having an affair with. The thugs also mangle Devane's hand in the garbage disposal, leaving him with a hook (yes, seriously – and it's only slightly less absurd than it sounds). With the help of a similarly disturbed fellow vet (Tommy Lee Jones, looking as "fresh faced" as he ever has), he looks to track down the bandits that took his life away just as he was getting it back together. With a script co-written by "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader, there are deep psychological undercurrents racing through "Rolling Thunder" (including Devane's delicate mental state following his imprisonment overseas and the shaky familial dynamics when he returns) but it also works as a balls-to-the-wall late-night revenge movie. Our favorite moment happens late in the film, when Devane and Jones have tracked down the bandits to a South of the Border whorehouse. Jones is sitting with a prostitute, about to have sex, but the only thing he's really excited about is going into the next room and killing a bunch of people. It's emblematic of the movie – wryly humorous and queasily uncomfortable. "Rolling Thunder" is one of the decade's very best movies, all the more so for being criminally overlooked upon its initial release.
Even with Quentin Tarantino working, no one’s exemplified the 21st century revenge movie better than Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, with a trilogy of films (two of which go as far to have the word "vengeance" in the title). First up, in 2002, was "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance," which sees a factory executive and his deaf-mute employee become embroiled in a bitter back-and-forth of retribution and vengeance. Next, and most famous of the three, was 2003's "Oldboy" (currently being remade by Spike Lee), about a man released from 15 year of captivity, who sets out to avenge himself against the person responsible. And finally, there was 2005's "Lady Vengeance," about a woman wrongfully convicted of child murder, who's released from prison and goes out to track down the real killer. The first is the most complex, mature, and arguably the best. The second (based on a popular Manga) is the boldest, the most iconic and the most entertaining. The third is arguably the most conventional, and probably the least effective, but packs a real emotional punch. But all three are bravura pieces of filmmaking, never less than gripping and absorbing, and pretty much must-sees.
As you might expect, an Ingmar Bergman revenge movie is a very different beast from any other revenge movie, even if it did prove to be the inspiration for Wes Craven's controversial exploitation horror "The Last House on the Left" in the process. Bergman's 1960 drama, which won the filmmaker his first Best Foreign Language film Oscar (he'd take the prize again the following year, for "Through A Glass Darkly"), is set in medieval Sweden, and centers on Karin (Birgitta Valberg), who goes out to deliver some candles to a nearby church, only to be raped and murdered by two local herdsmen (accompanied by a third younger man). The trio then take shelter, unknowingly, with the girls' parents, Tore (Max Von Sydow) and Mareta (Birgitta Valberg). The father realizes what's taken place, and murders the three men, before vowing to build a church in her name to help atone for the killings. Based on an old Swedish ballad, and later labelled 'an aberration' by the director, it's a simple and direct tale, but no less powerful for it. It's actually surprising, when looking over these films, how few of them actually address religion -- vengeance not being a particularly Christian quality, we guess -- but that's certainly not the case here, Bergman using Karin's tragic death, and Von Sydow's subsequent actions, as a way of examining faith, and the existence of God. For all that, for a film more than fifty years old at this point, it's still hard to watch in its brutality, making it one of the filmmaker's most atypical pictures, but perhaps one of his richest with it.
Honorable Mentions: Others we didn't quite have the space for/didn't feel strongly enough about included "Death Proof," "Gladiator," "The Count Of Monte Cristo," "The Crow," "Sweeney Todd," "Cape Fear," "Get Carter," "I Saw The Devil," "Confessions," "Vengeance Valley," "Memento," "Death Rides A Horse" and "Revanche." Anything else we've missed? Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Kieran McMahon, Rodrigo Perez