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Return of the Revenge Movie

Death_wishCall me a wimp, but I hate revenge movies. I mean the extreme kind, the one that seems to be making a comeback with movies like Death Sentence and The Brave One. I haven’t seen either of those films, and I’m not really planning to if they’re anything like their forebears.

I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill revenge movie—that’s such a staple film theme, I’d pretty much have to stay away from movies entirely avoid it. I have no problem with Kill Bill or Trading Places, nor with those campy Vincent Price movies like The Abominable Dr. Phibes or Theatre of Blood where he seeks a Grand Guignol revenge on his enemies.

The template for the ones that bother me was set by the original Walking Tall in 1973.

In essence, we watch some bad guys doing things so sadistically brutal to the hero or his loved ones that we’re manipulated to applaud when he indulges in an equal level of brutality. We ordinarily expect movie heroes to act with some degree of restraint, but when motivated by the rape of a wife or girlfriend or the slaughter of family members by a grinning sadist, well, that’s good enough reason for us to want to see him beat his nemesis to death with a baseball bat or hack him up with an axe or castrate him.

Taking the exploitation of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) and the mass appeal of Dirty Harry (1971) one step further, Walking Tall sprang out of the period in the early 1970s when America was taking a reactionary swing to the right. Led by the wildly popular Death Wish series, these movies catered to false fears that had been built up in middle America about runaway crime and social upheaval. You might argue that it’s a harmless way of exploiting a collective sense of disempowerment. But it seems to me that movies like this foster a black-and-white, good-versus-evil mindset that is horribly inappropriate for viewing the real world.

Movies like Joe (1970) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) claimed to show the dehumanizing effects of an obsession with vengeance. Jodie Foster and Kevin Bacon have said the same thing about their recent films. But I know that the bulk of audiences who flocked to these movies in the 1970s weren’t looking for a moral lesson: they went for the vicarious thrill of “justified” violence. When I saw Walking Tall in a theater in 1974, the suburban audience stood up and cheered (as they’d been told to do from the ads) at the climactic scene where Sheriff Buford Pusser slams his car into a villain. That was one of the most disturbing film experiences I’ve ever had, or ever hope to have. I hope Death Sentence and The Brave One are made of better stuff, but I’m afraid they’re more along the lines of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, which differs from the worst films in this genre only in not having a rape scene. (Thank god for small favors, anyway.)

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