A Dish Best Served Cold

Ever want to get even? Sure you have. Sometimes things happen that go beyond getting cut off on the road or being put on hold for 20 minutes. It could be when you were a kid being teased or bullied in school. It could be a mechanic who rips you off or an insurance company that uses a loophole to avoid honoring a claim. It could be a person who screwed you over at work. It could be someone trying to steal your boyfriend or girlfriend. Of course in real life there's not much you can do. Simple reality and a strong aversion to jail time generally prevent you from doing anything beyond complaining.

That's where movies come in. Art? Sometimes. Entertainment? Hopefully. But movies have always served as wish fulfillment. For it's movies where the nebbishy nice guy gets the hot woman. It's movies where the hero has a rousing adventure but emerges unscathed. It's movies where people get rich overnight. It's movies where they all live happily ever after.

One of the wishes movies most definitely fulfills is revenge. Those who were wronged do get even. Of course for the cinematic revenge to mean something it can't be for a busted fender or bad service. It has to be for a severe wrong, often someone's death or loss of livelihood. And the revenge can't happen right away. It needs to build gradually and end with a satisfying payoff, an emotional catharsis.

Many movies include a revenge element and I picked ten of my favorites. Some of these have revenge as a primary element. In others, it's secondary to the main plot. But all of them have the payoff, that key moment where it all comes together. In chronological order:

The Searchers (1956, dir. John Ford) -- Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches for his kidnaped niece, but he clearly also wants vengeance against the Comanches that murdered his family. Early in the film, Ford masterfully stages Ethan discovering the burning remains of his family's home. Ford cuts to a close-up of Edwards face showing shock and horror. Towards the end of the film, during the calvary's raid on the Comanches, Edwards discovers the body of their chief, who is already dead. Drawing his knife, Edwards moves toward the chief's head. Later Edwards emerges holding the chief's scalp. Not very PC, certainly by today's standards. In real life the Comanches were probably slaughtered by the white man, not the other way around. But this isn't the real world, and for the movie, this works. Having briefly gotten to know the family, the audience is also disturbed at their violent deaths. You naturally root for Wayne anyway, and in the emotional scope of the movie he is entirely justified when he takes his revenge.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, dir. Sergio Leone) -- Westerns seem to lend themselves to revenge stories. After all, what is "frontier justice" but people taking the law into their own hands? Leone's grand, operatic style fits perfectly with tales of vengeance. His quick-cutting extreme closeups of the protagonists' faces, coupled with Ennio Morricone's evocative score, heighten the emotional undercurrent. With Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone also uses a simple but powerful visual hook: a harmonica. Charles Bronson's character (who is never named) arrives in town and immediately sets out after Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless killer. We're not sure why for most of the film, but we do see Bronson's unflagging determination. Then it all becomes clear. In a flashback, we see Bronson's character as a boy. Frank places a harmonica in the boy's mouth, then the camera pulls back to reveal the boy's brother standing on his shoulders. Frank and his gang cruelly hung the brother from a noose and balanced him on the boy. When the boy fell from sheer exhaustion, his brother died. Moving back to the main story, Bronson shoots Frank. With his last breath, Frank asks, "Who are you?" Bronson remains silent, but takes his harmonica and puts it in Frank's mouth. With that little instrument, Leone ties together the revenge plot perfectly and delivers the whopping payoff.

The Sting (1973, dir. George Roy Hill) -- Of course revenge doesn't always have to be killing the villain. The Sting showed another way to do it, with style and charm instead of brutality. It's easy to forget but what sets the plot in motion is the murder of Johnny Hooker's (Robert Redford) friend and mentor, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). Gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) had Luther killed as payback for him and Johnny ripping off one of Lonnegan's men. Hooker enlists veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to bilk Lonnegan out of $500,000. Now here's the interesting part: Gondorff tells Hooker straight out that it might not be enough, or, in effect, that there are limits on revenge. Still, it works partly because Shaw is so effective as the cold, merciless villain. But mostly it succeeds due to the brilliant script, the terrific cast and Hill's innate sense of timing. When the con is done Hooker tells Gondorff, "You're right, it's not enough. But it's close!" It certainly is.

The Godfather, Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) -- There's no shortage of revenge killings throughout the Godfather saga. I'm picking this one because it's the most personal. As a young boy in Sicily, Vito Andolini's father, mother and brother are killed by Don Ciccio's men. Years later, now named Corleone and a Don in his own right, Vito (Robert De Niro) pays Don Ciccio a visit. After Ciccio asks who Vito's father was, Vito replies, "My father's name was Antonio Andolini ... and this is for you." He then stabs Ciccio and guts him like a fish. Again, this was personal and could not be justified as "business" like so many of the other killings. Also, Vito did not send his men to kill Ciccio; he had to do it himself. The fierce, steely look in De Niro's eyes tells you everything you need to know.

Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma) -- Forget the blood. It's the look that's truly frightening, the wide eyed fury in Carrie's (Sissy Spacek) face. As soon as you see it you know something in Carrie snapped and that there will be hell to pay. Here, after years of torment, she is on the verge of triumph. Instead, in an instant, it's total humiliation. The film sets this up with many earlier scenes of Carrie's abuse at the hands of her classmates. Spacek's riveting performance conveys Carrie's hurt, shyness, and burning need for acceptance. After the blood drops, anyone who has been teased or bullied in school can relate to her anger. Anyone can understand her need for revenge. Watching Carrie now, after the real-life horrors of Columbine and other school shootings, makes me feel uneasy. On the other hand one can be disgusted by Carrie's actions, while still, on a primal level, identifying with her. Carrie shows revenge that's not heroic but tragic.

Trading Places (1983, dir. John Landis) -- Of course, revenge can also be comic as we see with Trading Places. Much of the credit goes to Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as Randolph and Mortimer Duke. The Dukes ruin Louis Winthorpe's (Dan Aykroyd) life for a $1 bet. Their self-centered arrogance taps into a stereotype many have of the filthy rich: that they do what they want and don't care about anyone else. Later when Withorpe and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) turn the tables, the look on the Dukes' faces is just priceless. Valentine delivers the payoff by remarking, "See, Louis bet me that we couldn't both get rich and put ya'll in the poor house at the same time. He didn't think we could do it. I won." Louis follows with "I lost. One dollar." The Dukes' subsequent breakdown is just icing on the cake.

The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner) The line has become part of pop culture: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." But the revenge is much more than that line. Reiner, working off a clever William Goldman script, builds it by having the villainous Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) initially run away from Inigo (Mandy Patinkin). Then when Rugen stabs Inigo and all appears lost, Inigo builds himself back up by repeating his immortal line over and over again. Finally, when Inigo has Rugen cornered, he tells him to offer money, power, and then anything else he can ask for. Rugen does and says, "Anything you want." Then comes the perfect payoff: Inigo killing Rugen while replying, "I want my father back you son of a bitch." You know for most of the film that Inigo is going after his father's murderer. By making you wait and adding layers before delivering the payoff, Reiner and Goldman make the vengeance that much more satisfying.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989, dir. Richard Donner) -- Like westerns and gangster movies, cop films also lend themselves to revenge stories. Think of how many cops avenge their partner's death. With Lethal Weapon 2, you also have Mel Gibson, who has done many revenge movies (Mad Max, Braveheart, Ransom, Payback. You couldn't ask for a better combination. To further stack the deck, Lethal Weapon 2 has the evil South Africans reveal that they killed Riggs's (Gibson) wife. Then they kill his current girlfriend. For good measure they also murder all of his fellow detectives except his partner, Murtaugh (Danny Glover). So you can understand why he's pissed. Gibson, with his many faults (Note the irony that in Lethal Weapon 2 Gibson is fighting against bigots), does the wronged, emotionally wounded man very well. Riggs tells Murtaugh, "I'm not a cop tonight. It's personal." As hackneyed as that line may be, you believe it. Fights and explosions ensue. Finally, after Riggs lies bleeding, the lead villain holds his credentials up high and shouts, "Diplomatic immunity." Murtaugh shoots the bad guy in the head and responds, "It's just been revoked." I saw the film in Baltimore and I don't believe I've ever heard an audience roar in approval like they did after that line. Over the top? Maybe, but the payoff worked spectacularly.

Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood) -- I nearly didn't include this one. Unforgiven is widely credited as an anti-violence film, and for the most part that's true. The film deglamorizes killing as Bill Munny (Eastwood), an ex-gunfighter, reluctantly agrees to murder some cowboys who cut up a prostitute. Munny reflects on his life of gunfighting and why he gave it up. Unforgiven shows violence as messy and fraught with unforseen consequences. Then the tone changes when the iron-fisted sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), viciously beats Munny's friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) to death. Ned was wise, loyal and likeable (after all, it's Morgan Freeman), and you get upset when he dies. So does Munny, who finally accepts who he is. He confronts Little Bill and tells him, "I've killed women and children. I've killed everything that walks or crawls at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned." When Little Bill protests that he doesn't deserve this, Munny replies, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it" and then shoots him. Little Bill does deserve it though, in movie justice. It might not be pretty, and it definitely is not happy. We may not like how Munny has completely gone back to being a killer. But we do enjoy him killing Little Bill, and that's why I included Unforgiven on this list.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004, dir. Quentin Tarantino) -- While the other nine films had revenge as a component, the Kill Bill films are almost entirely about revenge. "The Bride" (Uma Thurman) a former hitwoman, is critically wounded and left for dead on her wedding day by Bill (David Carradine), her former boss. Bill's other assassins kill everyone else in the wedding party, including The Bride's fiancee. So naturally we are firmly in her corner as she seeks out Bill and his comrades to kill them one by one. It's tough to pick one payback scene, because Tarantino provides so much to choose from: knife fights, elegant sword fights, hand-to-hand combat, even graphic anime. I'll go with The Bride's clash with the one-eyed Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah). Elle is The Bride's most determined and ruthless enemy, even more than Bill. The Elle-Bride fight is the roughest of the series. Finally, Elle reveals that not only did she take part in the wedding day massacre, but she earlier killed Elle's teacher Pai Mei. This gives The Bride, and us, that extra incentive. As such, the payoff is even sweeter: Unlike the other assassins The Bride kills, Elle does not die instantly. The Bride claws out Elle's one good eye, leaving her blind. As Elle lies on the floor writhing in pain, we remember that a poisonous snake is also on the floor, one that Elle brought herself (to kill another character). So Elle gets tremendous agony, with an even more painful death on the way. The Bride gets her vengeance, and we get the kind of emotional pleasure the movies deliver so well.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2007

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