Whether they serve it cold in the Sicilian tradition or deliver it in a white-hot gush of mindless rage, everyone loves a heaping plate of revenge. At least they do in the movies, where tricky questions of jurisprudence and “I can’t do that because I’ll go to jail” don’t actually bother anyone. Derided by critics as unduly manipulative, good revenge stories feed our ingrained need to see the wicked punished, while providing a harmless outlet for our baser emotions. And when assembled by the right people, they can truly be a thing of beauty. Let’s take a look at the best of them: the ones that really grasp how to properly get even.
We didn’t include The Princess Bride on the list because the bulk of the film covers other topics (like true love). However, we need to give a shout-out to Inigo Montoya, whose single-minded quest perfectly embodies everything this list is supposed to be about. The film runs right up to the edge of parody, until Mandy Patinkin’s climactic line reminds us that the characters truly mean what they say.
Alan Moore’s dystopian future sows the seeds of its own destruction thanks to an escaped experimental subject with a penchant for Guy Fawkes. “V” differs from other protagonists on this list because he takes on an entire system rather than a single individual. And unlike most “one man against the system” stories, he actually succeeds (though it works far better in the graphic novel than in the ambitious film). It’s a sight to see when it comes to fruition; if this list were judged on spectacle alone, V would win hands down.
The tragedy of revenge comes full circle in Memento. Its protagonist needs to kill his wife’s murderer, but doesn’t have the first idea who that might be. Moreover he has no short-term memory, forcing him to rely on the cryptic messages tattooed onto his skin. The futility of his quest lingers beneath every move he makes, but he keeps going because it’s literally the only thing that still defines him.
Like The Virgin Spring, Oldboy understands that revenge has its price. Unlike The Virgin Spring, it also delivers a level of gore that would make Eli Roth lose his lunch. The combination proves irresistible, as hapless Korean Dae-Su (Choi Min-suk) finds himself imprisoned for no discernable reason. 15 years later, he’s released to follow a bloody, tortured road to payback. The grotesque deeds he commits pale before the final revelation, however… forcing us to ask who truly gets even in the end.
It’s hard not to feel for a guy whose family and best buddy get run down by crazed post-apocalyptic bikers. (Then again, one wonders what they were doing going on vacation in that kind of a setting to begin with.) In any case, the bikers leave the husband alive, giving him a chance to unleash the demons he’d been fighting so hard to contain. Considering that said husband is Mel Gibson, we’re talking some pretty scary demons. He straps them into the engine of a retooled muscle car and… well let’s just say that proper helmet safety is the least of his targets’ problems.
A good revenge story needs impossibly evil villains to work: people so vile and hateful that just watching them makes you want to douse yourself in bleach. Hard Candy’s bad guy is certainly that awful – a murderous pederast who stalks young girls on the Internet – but he never appears so. With his sensitive New Age glasses and friendly, soft-spoken tone, he’s the kind of guy who any precocious young thing would instantly take a fancy to. Pity that his would-be prey is onto him from the beginning… and subjects him to a calculated form of payback that crushes his rotten soul rather than his pleasing façade.
You can add the two versions of Last House on the Left to this entry. Both were revamped variations on the Ingmar Bergman original, in which a gaggle of medieval thugs rape and murder a young girl, then unknowingly take shelter in the home of her parents. Bergman delved deeply into the philosophical implications of vengeance, including the cost to the avenger and the problematic presence of God amid it all. It’s as grim a movie as you’ll ever see, but it also proves that these stories can be about more than gratuitous button pushing.
The structure is almost haiku-like in its simplicity: a gaggle of bad guys murder a musician and his girlfriend, only to find themselves targeted by that same musician brought back from the dead. He hunts them down one by one, they fight back, they fail, the end. But driven by the unparalleled visuals of Alex Proyas and haunted by the spirit of star Brandon Lee (who died tragically at the end of filming), The Crow turns its straightforward structure into a Goth masterpiece. It came from an earlier era of comic book adaptations, and the inevitable threats of a remake have set themselves the toughest of all possible acts to follow. (Just ask anyone associated with the interminably crappy sequels.)
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part exercise in pop-culture mash-ups adopts a curiously clinical approach to its revenge tale. All of the players – both the vendetta-laden Bride and the five killers on her list – understand the stakes from the get go. None of them attempts to dodge the inevitable, and most admit quite readily that (to quote Michael Madsen) “that woman deserves her vengeance.” It allows Tarantino to analyze the specifics of a proper comeuppance, as well as the ways that violence perpetrates violence in an unending cycle. If he ever deigns to make the follow-up, we’ll see just how far that cycle goes.
Stephen King knows bullies. His schoolyard tormentors – whatever the setting – are cunning, cruel examples of all things petty and vile in the human soul. They don’t get much worse than the ones in Carrie, nor are their victims more hapless and put-upon than the friendless girl whom they torment just because they can. But that little wallflower has a secret that only comes out under extreme duress. It would take a lot to bring out – like a bucket of pigs’ blood dumped on her at the prom – but hey, no one’s that awful. Are they?
The exact nature of the comeuppance here is cunningly hidden beneath Sergio Leone’s operatic grandeur. We know that Frank (Henry Fonda) is a bad man who does awful things. We know that Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is a bad ass whose motives in the movie’s complicated land grab are nebulous at best. Then the climax arrives and a perfect, simple gesture signals that the piper has been paid… with unbeatable interest.