The Best Movie Ever | Revenge
They say that living well is the best revenge, but that wouldn’t make for a kickass movie, so instead “Revenge Movies” became a prolific and legitimate motion picture genre. We all understand what it’s like to feel wronged, we have all fantasized about exacting our own particular brand of justice, and since we live in a world of morality and consequences we usually don’t go through with it. But the characters in our movies can, and they offer a brief catharsis to the rest of us… or at least a cautionary example of why we should probably let the police handle all the crime fighting for us.
This week, the critically acclaimed new western The Revenant expands to theaters nationwide, and it’s another brutal saga of vengeance in which a half-dead Leonardo DiCaprio crawls through the icy wilderness to do violence against the Tom Hardy who destroyed his life. It’s a very good revenge movie, but not the best. So we asked ourselves… what is the best revenge movie ever made?
Or rather, we asked our three film critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to decide once and for all. They can only pick one movie each to hold up as the pinnacle of the genre, and as usual, they couldn’t agree on a single film.
Find out which revenge movies they picked, let us know your own favorites, and come back next Wednesday for another highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!
Witney Seibold’s Pick: The Virgin Spring (1960)
Revenge – particularly a violent form of frontier justice – is used as the motivating factor for such a large volume of movie characters, you would think that the very notion of hateful retribution is a central driving force in human discourse. I suppose revenge is an easy-to-understand motivator, but ultimately it smacks of lazy screenwriting. A man or woman was wronged, and violence is necessary to balance the scales of justice. A to B to C. When constructing a dramatic story, revenge will do. But revenge is, in fact, incredibly rare in real life; how many people do you personally know who have engaged in a retributive slaying? The real-life impacts of revenge are rarely explored in cinema, and the sticky emotional and moral complications of such actions are hardly ever examined.
So it falls to master Ingmar Bergman to examine the morals, the pitfalls, and the horrors of revenge. His 1960 film The Virgin Spring is a story of revenge, but the type of revenge that is not cathartic or meaningful. It may not even be right. But it’s an impulse we must face. In medieval Sweden, a placid country family dotes on their pretty, virginal daughter. They are all blissfully happy and devoutly Christian. The feisty, pregnant servant girl doesn’t think mush of them. When the innocent daughter wanders into the woods to deliver candles to the local church, she is beset by a band of bandits who flirt with her, threaten her, and then rape and murder her, kind of on a whim. The rapists, wracked by horror and guilt over their own actions, seek shelter at a nearby cottage. The cottage of the girl’s family.
There are some excellent thriller elements built into this sort of story (Will the parents find out? Will the rapists confess? Will there be violence?), but Bergman knows better than to stay within the realm of the visceral. Bergman wants to see the facts of the matter. One crime was committed. Revenge would just be a second crime. This is not justice, but a strange sort of sacrament, lingering in the darker corners of the human subconscious. Will there be violence? Yes. But the ending of the film is the real – and unexpected – catharsis. Perhaps we need less revenge, and more penance.
Brian Formo’s Pick: The Godfather (1972)
There Will Be Blood isn’t a classical story of revenge but its final line, “I’m finished” – uttered by the victor, on his knees, beside a foe who’d just been bludgeoned to death with a bowling pin – best defines how many revenge films end: with the completion of a task. For a revenge movie to really excel it has to have some extra higher plane of existence beyond just the completion of killing someone who’s wronged the main character.
Thus, the reason why The Godfather is the best revenge movie of all time is because it drops us into the organized crime world via familial duty and ascension. And because of the deep attention to the family side of the illegal business – chiefly the differences between three brothers, Sonny Corleone (James Caan), Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) – the film becomes both a tragedy (that Michael must be the one who ascends because both Sonny is viciously and unceremoniously murdered and his other brother, Fredo, is too sensitive) and a rebirth.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Oldboy (2003)
Movies have a tendency, for better or worse, to make horrible things seem “cool.” War movies rarely capture the true horrors of the battlefield, cop movies rarely do justice to the vast amount of paperwork involved, and revenge movies are usually about catharsis. Or, at best, they admit that revenge is a vicious cycle, and the wronged party receives justice at the end, and the loop gets closed forever.
There is perhaps only one movie that dramatizes the true cost of living with vengeance in your heart. Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy tells the story of an unremarkable drunkard who is kidnapped, imprisoned in a hotel room without explanation for 15 years, and then released just as inexplicably. Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is consumed by a vicious desire to learn his captor’s identity, and take his own revenge, but to do so, Oh Dae-su must uncover the mystery of why someone would want to take revenge on him in the first place.
Oldboy illustrates that violence, when meted out with perceived righteousness, feels great. Chan-wook Park films Oh Dae-su’s journey with high contrast style, and his unforgettable hallway hammer fight is one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. But as Oldboy progresses, and its mysteries are revealed (I’ll never tell), we begin to see the true horrors of vengeance, and the shocking toll that merely living our lives can have on other people. If revenge was justified at any time, in any way, the world would be a place of continuous and unspeakable horrors. It feels good for a moment but it culminates in shock and misery and ultimately it was never worth the trouble.
Oldboy is the revenge movie to end all revenge movies. (Avoid the remake. It sucks.)