Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"Revenge" (2017): review

[NB: spoilers!]

Not to be confused with the 1990 Kevin Costner/Anthony Quinn/Madeleine Stowe film of the same title, 2017's "Revenge" is a French production starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède, and directed by relative action-movie newbie Coralie Fargeat. The movie has garnered a surprising amount of critical praise; we'll get into why this is surprising soon enough.

The plot is about as simple and straightforward as it gets: Jennifer (Lutz) is the fuck-bunny for rich playboy Richard (Janssens), who has a very nice house out in the desert of some unnamed—but definitely not American—country. Richard is married and has kids, but he's tapping Jen on the side, and he's brought her out to his desert hideaway for some sun and fun. Richard's friends—two hunting buddies named Stan and Dimitri—arrive the following morning and stay overnight. Drunk and/or high, Jen—who comes off as a cross between an airhead and a whore—flirts heavily with Stan, who gets turned on by her seeming advances. Come morning, however, Jen is no longer friendly toward Stan at all. When Richard leaves on an errand, Stan confronts Jen about the previous night's flirtation, and when Jen remains cool toward him, Stan rapes her. Richard comes back and finds out what has happened; in an act of pure tastelessness, he offers Jen a large sum of hush money plus a quiet job in Canada. Jen, for her part, only wants Richard to call for the copter to take her back home. This doesn't happen, and Jen suddenly takes off from the house at a run. Richard and his buds give chase, eventually trapping Jen against a cliff. To placate Jen, Richard pretends to call for the helicopter to come pick her up; as he does this, he edges toward Jen and pushes her off the cliff. Jen plummets toward the ground, but never reaches it: she gets impaled through the abdomen by a tree, and she's left for dead by the three men.

This is where the story actually begins. Jen miraculously wakes up to find herself impaled, with ants crawling around her bloody wound. Improbably, she manages to use a lighter to burn some tufts of kindling at the base of the tree, weakening the trunk enough to topple the tree and send Jen to the ground. She contrives to regain her feet, but she still has a length of branch sticking out of her gut. In one of this film's more plausible moves, Jen wisely keeps the branch in place, perhaps remembering from high-school first-aid class that yanking the branch out would cause horrific blood loss.

The rest of the story, in which the girl hunts down the guys, will be familiar to anyone who has ever read Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" or seen any one of hundreds of action movies in which a lone hero picks off his enemies one by one. There's really no need to spoil the rest of the plot; we all know how this ends, so the movie's value resides in the path we take to that ending. With that in mind, let's talk about some other aspects of the film.

Tonally, the film comes off mostly as a revenge drama with comic highlights. There's a surreal moment during which we get a nasty closeup shot of a fat guy grossly chewing on some sort of chocolate crunches. There's another surreal moment, later on, in which we see our heroine get high on peyote (I immediately thought of the peyote, which appears early in the film, as Chekov's Peyote: if you see it in Act One, you need to be using it by Act Three), then implausibly perform surgery on herself.

And while we're banging on about implausibilities, I should note that this problem was one that took me out of the film several times. I appreciate the critical praise for the feminist twist that the story gives to an otherwise conventional revenge plot, but the movie's sheer ignorance of human biology often got in the way of my suspension of disbelief. First, there's the matter of the tree that stopped Jen's two-hundred-foot fall down the cliff: in real life, the poor woman would have died from a broken spine. Hard on the heels of her miraculous survival, there's the goofy way in which she got off the tree: by burning both the tree and herself. Jen, who is seen to be bleeding heavily despite having a fat branch stuck in her guts, is now stumbling barefoot through the rocky desert with third-degree burns. The shock of all that blood loss, plus the shock from the burns, really ought to have put the young woman out of commission. But Jen apparently has the constitution of John McClane—another action-movie freak of nature—and even in scenes where she appears to stumble and land on her stomach, the branch in her guts remains firmly in place and doesn't damage her any further. On top of these stochastic events, Jen takes peyote to numb the coming pain, then removes the branch from herself and uses a peeled-apart, fire-heated beer can to cauterize her wound. How she manages such surgical precision while tripping balls on peyote is absolutely beyond my comprehension—as is the hilarious phoenix-shaped burn mark that she gives herself through her cautery. (The beer can has a phoenix emblem on it. This somehow translates into a phoenix-shaped scar, despite the can's surface being perfectly flat, and it makes for a pretty heavy-handed symbol of Jen's rebirth as a badass.) There's also the question of how cauterizing the surface of the wound in any way repairs the damage to Jen's lacerated intestines: she ought to be bleeding internally. But we're not done: in the film's final act, Jen somehow tracks Richard down at his desert house. How she knew he was going to end up there is anyone's guess. Maybe her hours or days in the desert, hovering so closely to death, gave her keen prophetic insight.

You can see, now, why I find all the critical praise surprising. I'm guessing that the thing the critics latched on to was Jen's character arc, and I have to agree that, despite all the technical ridiculousness, it was actually a very interesting progression. Jen starts the movie as little more than a shallow chick who doesn't mind banging a married rich man. She obviously knows little about the world, and she's just as obviously one of those girls who survive on their looks and not on their brains. In rapid succession, however, Jen is raped and then nearly killed. She teaches herself how to handle a gun, and she digs deep within herself to find the strength and the stubbornness she needs both to survive her situation and to prevail against the men who did her wrong. As character arcs go, this is a very good one, with super-rapid maturation, but my main complaint is that Jen's story is so filled with unlikely events that the arc itself becomes hard to take seriously.

So "Revenge" has a weak story. I'm also not convinced that the actors involved in this film were of the best caliber. Kevin Janssens, who plays Richard, doesn't have the cleverest lines to say; the film's dialogue is definitely not a strong point, and Janssens's delivery leaves something to be desired. Much of the dialogue is in French, and Janssens's French bugged me because his accent sounded off. He spoke with the rapidity of someone with native fluency, but his French didn't sound French. When I looked the actor up on Wikipedia, I saw why: Janssens is Belgian. His surname should have been a clue, but I then understood why he sounded like Jean-Claude Van Damme. Richard's buddies, Stan and Dimitri, were both played by French actors, which is why they sounded more natural to me. The men's acting—except for Colombe's—sometimes struck me as somewhat stiff and forced; Matilda Lutz (who is Italian), by contrast, seemed to improve as the story progressed: the more frazzled and disheveled she looked, the better her acting got: she evolved into the role of the kick-ass heroine.

Writer-director Coralie Fargeat (pronounce her surname "fahr-zhah") has crafted a story that could use some rewriting. As a director, she's got a good eye for the intensity that comes from jamming the camera up close to open and bleeding wounds (there's plenty of flowing blood, and a bit of gore as well, along with a painful, "Die Hard"-style moment in which one of the baddies has to pick shards of glass out of the profusely bleeding sole of one foot), and she knows how to ratchet up the tension via point-of-view shots taken over a character's shoulder as that character wends his or her way through the desert scrub or through the hallways of a large house. Fargeat has the potential to become an action director on the order of Luc Besson, but she needs to nail certain basics first. She has a kind of undeveloped, De Palma-meets-Grindhouse sensibility, but she needs more, especially when it comes to storytelling and character development.

I mentioned above that the movie strives to be a revenge drama with comic highlights, but in truth, I laughed way more than I probably should have. There were so many ridiculously unlikely scenes, so many violations of the basics of human biology (not to mention one embarrassingly fake-looking corpse in a lake), that I had no response but mirth for what I was seeing. Overall, I found "Revenge" bizarrely entertaining, but for much of its running time, the film was entertaining in spite of itself. It's definitely a feminist rereading of a familiar action subgenre, but that's not enough to give it an air of legitimacy, in my book.


Charles said...

Watching a lot of films lately, eh?

Question: Why do you think Die Hard works but this doesn't (or not as well)? I get the impression from the review that this is a more serious film (because Die Hard is awesome, but serious it ain't). Is that it? Or is it something else?

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I had a few films built up in my iTunes and Amazon Prime Video queue. I watched "Smokin' Aces," "Death Wish," and "Revenge" in lieu of hitting the cinema and re-watching "Deadpool 2" this past weekend.

"Revenge" doesn't work as well as "Die Hard" because, while both films feature spectacular blood loss and a host of improbabilities, "Revenge" goes out of its way to play in the field of the utterly implausible. Some of the critics I've read love this fact and say the director knew exactly what she was doing when she exaggerated the action in this manner (I gave a nod to this when I said "De Palma meets Grindhouse" because I agree she was leaning in that direction). So I suppose it comes down to a matter of taste: either you go with the wacky action, or you lose your ability to suspend disbelief. For me, it was the latter. "Die Hard" also had a lighter tone (in part thanks to a quippy protag) that made its cartoonishness easier to swallow. "Revenge" showcases desperate guys angrily screaming at each other in French, plus a girl with a very grim look on her face.

So, yes: I'd say "Revenge" is generally more serious in tone than "Die Hard" is, but as I said in the conclusion of my review, I think "Revenge" often ended up being unintentionally funny because of the hyper-exaggerated situations the poor girl finds herself in. In terms of believable feminist heroines, I'd much rather watch Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton kicking ass in a well-scripted James Cameron flick.

Kevin Kim said...

I should note, too, that there's a lot that "Die Hard" gets right. One major factor is the well-made story structure: it leaves room for a certain amount of action-movie goofiness, but it's also a tight, streamlined plot that takes early threads and connects them to later events (classic example: at the beginning of the film, McClane takes the advice of a fellow passenger to "make fists" with his toes as a way to unwind from the long flight, and this leads, "butterfly effect"-style, to McClane's spending the rest of the movie barefoot as he runs around the Nakatomi Building, including running over broken glass). I didn't see any such structural cleverness in "Revenge," which relies on sheer simplicity of story for the coherence of its plot. "Die Hard" also pays attention to the little details, such as how Europeans and Americans respectively hold cigarettes in their fingers. All of this adds up to a greater amount of vérité than we get in "Revenge," which may be another reason why I had trouble connecting with that film.