They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but thinking about all the great revenge flicks, the say should be: revenge is a dish best served on the silver screen. Blue Ruin, out on DVD today, is a classic example of this basic set-up – a lean, effective and sometimes very bloody revenge thriller in which vagrant Dwight (Macon Blair) returns to his childhood home town to kill the man who murdered his parents, unleashing a wave of tit for tat reciprocal violence which escalates out of control. Blue Ruin is a timely reminder that the well-worn revenge genre can still be fresh and intriguing. Not only that, but it seems to have shifted a renaissance in the genre, with this year showcases some fine, low budget thrillers. To mark its DVD release, here is a selection of ten more of the greatest revenge thrillers from cinema history, from the wildly over the top to the bittersweet and tragic.
This is the film that made Mel an international superstar. In his starring debut, Mel plays Max, a leather-clad cop in the near future who fights to control security on the road from vicious bikers and road thugs. When the thugs lead by the psychotic Toecutter kill Max's wife and baby, our hero is livid with vengeance. Armed with his armor-plated muscle car and a sawed-off shotgun, Max wreaks turbo-powered revenge on the murderous punks. It's ridiculously over-the-top, but it's brash, exhilarating and a great revenge film.
V for Vendetta is a swift and smugly entertaining portrait of revolution. Albeit, this is a Wachowski Brothers revolution, meaning there must be wildly theatric heroes and crisply tailored CGI stunts all set comfortably in an oppressive Totalitarian society. But this is more than The Matrix with a Victorian flare. V for Vendetta offers up a convincing vision of the near-future paired with an operatic comic book tale of love, mystery, and a Guy-Fawkes-masked rebellion. However, above all, it was Hugo Weaving's absolutely brilliant depiction of the lead character V who dominates. Without ever seeing his facial expression, he exudes the pragmatism, charisma and intelligence of the character with a twist of revenge-driven madness.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a piquant cocktail of style and substance in equal parts, potent enough to catapult the viewer into a whirlpool of incessant excitement transcending him beyond the usual realms of an adrenaline rush. Vintage Leone, it is inarguably the best Western ever made and undoubtedly features amongst the very best works of cinema, period. Leone incredibly surpasses the brilliance of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Once Upon a Time in the West by blending his favorite theme of Greed with that of Revenge.
This is the most heartbreaking film of all time. It is a raw, uncompromising, unbiased parable on love and revenge; on humanity. It is set in 14th century Sweden - but its message is timeless: as timeless as love and vengefulness themselves. As timeless as humanity itself. Because the mores may change, but today, as 800 years ago, people are still helpless in their (perhaps inevitable) core existential ignorance, still subject to the immense pain of losing a loved one, of the inexplicable torments that often befall just and righteous, "good" people.
The sorts of different directions Mike Hodges weaves Get Carter are seamless in their execution and all of frightening; dramatic; tension filled and somewhat humorous on separate occasions. Watching the film now is a plunge into a time and a place that only those whom were directly involved can speak of in whatever capacity they deem fit. It is the north of England which is the playground wherein a series of sordid; seedy and illegal events play out under a collective umbrella of both the gangster and noir genres with a bloody tale of revenge acting as the cherry on top. Nobody wins in Hodges' universe, and ninety percent of the losers get agonising and quite frightening fatal blows – that adds up to a lot of pain contained within.
No list would be credible without feature Akira Kurosawa. Having already adapted William Shakespeare in 1957 with his version of MacBeth, Throne of Blood, in 1960 Kurosawa turned his attention to Hamlet. The Bad Sleep Well takes the famous Shakespeare play and relocates it to contemporary Japan, a world of corporate greed and corruption in which double dealings, fraud and murder define the ethics of the business world. Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune stars as Koichi Nishi, a man who’s father’s apparent suicide was covered up by the corporation he worked for. Using a new identity, he ingratiates himself into the upper echelons of the corporation and exactly a slow-burning revenge.
Luc Besson's movie Léon gives us an intense story which sees Jean Reno play a character named Léon who has learned to repress his emotions in order to perform his job as a "cleaner", or hit-man. His secluded world is shattered by a young girl named Mathilda who lives on the same floor as he does in an apartment building. When she turns to him for help, he learns about living a normal life, even if the circumstances which unite them are far from normal. Their relationship unfolds against a backdrop of murder and revenge as director Luc Besson explores issues of age and maturity, good and evil, and the interplay of life, death and love. It's a great revenge thriller, but more importantly it's a human revenge thriller.
If you look up 'Revenge Thriller' in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy. Oldboy is a film which assesses the deepest corners of the human heart. The middle of three films which make up Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy it is undoubtedly the masterpiece, with a more powerful message than Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. This film has power because of the depths to which it explores the flaws and forces the human heart possesses, stronger and more destructive than any wisdom can overcome. Oldboy is one of the most intense movies you will ever see. Breathtaking, brutal and easily one of the best revenge movies ever made.
Few revenge thrillers out there are as quirky and individualistic as Dead Man’s Shoes, Shane Meadows’ dark low budget thriller set in the small town of Matlock, Derbyshire. Dead Man’s Shoes is proof that the revenge thriller genre can be both subverted and respected – it’s a strange, slow-burning film with a surreal streak mixed with liberal dashes of dark humour which builds to a surprisingly touching conclusion. A must-see movie for fans of the revenge thriller.
Leonard Shelby is a man with no short-term memory. He hasn't been able to form new memories since the night his wife was murdered. Now he's on a hunt to find the murderer but with no way of remembering names, dates, places, facts and faces. Instead he tattoos himself with mementos of his search. When someone knows his name, he checks Polaroids to see if he knows them. Now chew on this: what happens to guilt if you cannot remember what you did? How can a person have emotions if he does not know where they came from? How can we learn from our experiences if we cannot remember them. What is the purpose of revenge if someone cannot recollect or prosper from it?
Memento is still a unique mystery thriller. It is a tantalizing experience we do not often come across at the movies. For audiences who like to sit back and relax, this film is a waste of time. It requires us to follow along, participate, fit puzzle pieces together- Memento doesn't provide any easy or obvious answers. It's one of the most rewarding films of all time, and it's certainly the best revenge thriller.
Honourable mentions: Kill Bill Volumes 1&2, Kind Hearts and Coronets,, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Double Jeopardy, Harry Brown