The revenge drama is an old and timelessly popular story form. It’s pretty easy to see why. Our daily lives are filled with a thousand little annoyances: people barging into you on a busy street, drivers honking at you when you’re trying to merge, that weird guy watching Taylor Swift videos loudly when sitting next to you at a coffeehouse. In other words, the kinds of things that inspire murderous thoughts in your head that you can never—and should never—act upon.
A good revenge movie is satisfying in a vicarious way. And lest you think that violent revenge dramas are a product of our angry age, it’s worth noting that the revenge drama was invented in ancient Rome. And they were way, way weirder back then. They featured ghosts, murder, excessive theatricality, and, yes, cannibalism. So get off your high horse if you think revenge movies of today are perverse in their violence. None of the contemporary avenging angels are going around eating anyone.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Mr. Fancy Pants-Greatest-Writer-Ever William Shakespeare wrote his share of revenge dramas. They were a highly popular form of theater in his day. Shakespeare was a businessman and, well, he gave the people what they wanted. There are at least 12 murders in Titus Andronicus, most of them grisly stabbings.
Today we’re going to look at a subgenre of the revenge movie—the revenge drama in which the avenging angel is a woman.
I am a tremendous admirer of this movie. Jodie Foster plays a meek employee at a public radio station in New York City, with a nice quiet life with her nice quiet fiancé, until they are brutally assaulted in Central Park one night by three violent criminals. Her fiancé is murdered and she finds herself out for revenge. She illegally acquires a gun and then goes on a secretive killing spree, shooting down bad guys left and right who menace innocent people in Manhattan. This is essentially a rehash of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series. With three important differences: it’s got great acting, good directing by Neil Jordan, and an excellent script, none of which the Bronson movies had. (Disclosure: one of the three screenwriters on this film is Cynthia Mort, whom I worked with on “Roseanne.” Objectively, however, it’s an excellent script.)
This comedy was an enormous hit when it came out almost 40 years ago. The big question I had was: does it hold up? My answer? It sure does. In fact, it may be even more relevant in the #MeToo era. Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton are three office workers who are abused, harassed, and hassled by their pig of a boss (played just perfectly by Dabney Coleman). The three women decide they’ve had it and seek revenge on Coleman’s loutish character. Things don’t go perfectly, and hijinks ensue. I had forgotten how genuinely clever and funny this movie is. It’s a great cast, the bad guy gets his comeuppance, and the women win. What more could you want? Rent it!
A 14-year-old farm girl, Mattie Ross, hires a drunken, rascally, half-blind retired sheriff named Rooster Cogburn to help her track down and avenge the murder of her father by the outlaw Tom Chaney. Based on a 1967 novel by Charles Portis, the original version of the film starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby. Though this film isn’t particularly outstanding and John Wayne had a dozen better performances in his career (I’m a huge John Wayne fan, by the way), this is the movie that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. A little over 40 years later, in 2010 the redoubtable Joel and Ethan Coen remade True Grit (2010), and I far prefer this version to the original. Jeff Bridges steps into the Rooster Cogburn role and the Coens play up the bickering between his character and the young Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld. The 2010 version is funnier and more violent, but both are worth a rental. In fact, watch them consecutively and let us know which one you prefer.
The Mad Max movies are all ridiculous. Let’s be honest about that. The original three in the series (Mad Max (1980), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)) were a festival of 1980s punk rock fashions and music set in post-apocalyptic Australia with lots of ridiculous off-road vehicles chasing each other around a desert. Now, that doesn’t mean the latest edition isn’t ridiculous. It is! But I loved it, and here’s why: Mad Max isn’t the star of the movie. The central figure in this reboot of the franchise is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). I mean, her name alone shows she’s out for blood. Theron just utterly takes over this movie and makes Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) almost an extraneous character. You do not want to mess with Imperator Furiosa. The filmmakers try to make this movie seem as if it has something important to say about conserving our resources in a world ruined by climate change. I think. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It has Charlize Theron in it and she is awesome. The story ultimately makes almost no sense at all. Who cares? I loved the action and the over-the-top cars and the heart-pounding chase scenes. I’ve watched this movie five times already.
Korean movies are never dull. I’m not an expert on Korean cinema. Far from it. I’ve only seen about ten Korean movies. But man, were they entertaining and highly theatrical. My favorite Korean movie is The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), which is the Korean version of a spaghetti western set in 1930s Manchuria. As I say, Korean movies are never dull. Lady Vengeance is a taut, violent, exciting revenge drama about a woman who is released from prison after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of a 5-year-old boy when she was 13. Yeong-ae Lee is straight-up fabulous as Lee Geum-ja, the avenging angel here. This is an ornate and troubling tale and is filmed with a spectacular sense of style. Highly recommended, if Korean revenge dramas are your sort of thing. Which they should be.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.