If you’re looking for a cathartic experience at the movies, you’ve got to go with a revenge movie. Who hasn’t wanted to blast away some young punk who’s done them wrong? But you can’t do it yourself, so the next best thing is watching an anti-hero don a cool leather jacket, grab a very large gun, and get to the righting of wrongs. The genre, which had its heyday in the seventies as the Summer of Love gave way to urban blight, traditionally centers on men, guys like Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) and Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish, though occasionally a woman takes matters into her own hands and does the killing. Even so, until a few recent pioneers made bloody strides for revenge-movie equality, women tended to take to vigilantism and vengeance quests for reasons different than men.
Simply put, movie men generally avenge others, whereas women tend to be direct victims of a crime first. Then, and only then, will they take their revenge on the perpetrators. Paul Kersey goes after the thugs who raped his wife, whereas I Spit on Your Grave‘s Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) goes after the thugs who raped her. Yes, rape figures prominently in revenge movies — like The Last House on the Left‘s parents exacting revenge on behalf of their daughter — but a horrific sexual crime is something of a prerequisite in female revenge movies. (A subgenre called “rape revenge” was even born in the seventies.)
Why is that? Do audiences believe that women are only violent when reclaiming themselves from victimhood? Maybe. While some women find rape-revenge flicks empowering, I generally find them to be less so — see, there’s the whole “squidgy” (yes, “squidgy” — it’s a technical term) side where you have to sit through the disturbing rape to get to the glorious revenge, a.k.a. the good stuff. So while there’s no denying that Madeleine (Christina Lindberg) of Thriller: A Cruel Picture looks decidedly badass with her eye patch, shotgun, and long coat, blasting away everyone who’s done her wrong, that comes only after watching her be degraded and raped for an hour or so beforehand.
Even in more mainstream — and recent — movies, the formula is the same. Take Thelma & Louise: Thelma (Geena Davis) is nearly raped, Louise (Susan Sarandon) kills the would-be rapist, and the tragically lovable gals’ journey of truck-shooting, lawbreaking, and driving off of cliffs begins from there. Look, no matter the gender of the protagonist, vigilante and revenge movies fall under the auspices of exploitation. The problem is that those featuring women inexplicably tended to fall on the sex side of the sex and violence found in exploitation films.
But, lo and behold, a few notable exceptions have arrived in recent years, notably Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Hard Candy, and The Brave One, which, unsurprisingly, stars groundbreaking female heroine Jodie Foster. The Brave One hearkens back to the vigilante movies of yore, featuring Foster as Erica, whose fiancé is killed by thugs. So she gets herself a gun and tracks them down. Though injured in the initial attack, she wasn’t raped, and she doesn’t go after only the men responsible but takes out all manner of hoodlums. At last, a revenge movie in which gender doesn’t play a role in the protagonist’s actions. She is not a rape victim, but she is a hero of the people. She’s avenging her fallen lover just the way a man would. Erica Bain would make Paul Kersey proud.
Similarly, Kill Bill‘s anti-hero, the Bride (Uma Thurman), is injured herself (actually, put into a coma), but she’s far more concerned with eliminating all those who killed her husband, her wedding party, and her unborn child (or so she thinks). And then there’s Hayley (Ellen Page) of Hard Candy, who kicks the idea of revenge up a notch. Despite her tender age (14), Hayley allows herself to be lured into the home of a much older man, so she can torture him and offer him the choice between committing suicide and having his murder of another young woman revealed. Turns out Hayley has been tracking the suspect — and already killed his partner — despite the fact that the victim is someone she doesn’t even know. The Bride and Hayley aren’t the same type of vengeful women as Bain, but they’re kindred spirits in that they’re a lot more similar to Paul Kersey — patron saint of revenge movies — than to the aforementioned Jennifer of I Spit on Your Grave.
Mind you, you can only admire flicks like The Brave One so much. Like all vigilante movies, there’s that weird moment when the law-abiding-citizen part of my brain takes over and I go, “Wait, why are you killing all these people? Vigilantism isn’t right! You should consult with your local constabulary, not a gun-shop owner!” When the protagonist is just killing everyone, the original reason for seeking revenge is far from his or her mind. But if I can mentally scold a female character for that behavior as much as I would scold a male, well, that’s equality — bloody, bullet-riddled equality.
Check out AMC Premiere Event: The Brave One, on Sun., Jan. 23, at 8PM | 7C and 10:30PM | 9:30C, and Mon., Jan. 24, at 8PM | 7C and 10:30PM | 9:30C.Read More