Revenge works so exceptionally well not only because it’s an exceptional entry in the gory-exploitation-horror-genre, but because the movie is, at its core, a tried and true survival story. Oh, it’s without a doubt the R-rated genre movie you could hope for: There’s buckets of blood, exploding heads, quick cuts, drug-fueled sequences and gratuitous nudity – all of which make for a good time. But underneath the layers of blood is a fantastic story about the strength of the human spirit via a gripping story centered on an extraordinary woman.
Centering on a young woman named Jen (Matilda Luta), Revenge follows her as she goes to a secluded desert retreat with a tall, blonde, muscular man named Richard (Kevin Janssens) who looks ripped from the cover of a dime-store romance novel. This is the kind of guy who can afford affairs with young women because he made millions in, I don’t know, pharmaceuticals or something. He’s the sort of guy you hate instantly given his obnoxious bravado and the fact he comes to these retreats to hunt big game – a rich man’s idea of luxury. The same goes for his boorish, creepy friends, Stan and Dimitri (Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède), both of whom show up last minute only to ogle Jen.
Jen is a free spirit with an infectious energy who brings life to the home while the men cackle as she dances. Stan mistakes her joyful demeanor as a sign of attraction, her sending signals she likes him. The movie takes the turn that will make audiences most squeamish when Stan, after his ego and masculinity are damaged by Jen’s natural rebuffs, thinks he can simply take what he thinks is his. The scene that follows is hard to watch. Directors of 70s-era shock flicks like I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left and Straw Dogs (and their remakes) tend to shoot these scenes with brutality in an attempt to drive home an element of shock and repulsion, but really all they make you do is feel sick to your stomach. Revenge, on the other hand, handles things more delicately. Well, as delicately as a movie like this can.
Director Coralie Fargeat handles this scene not by focusing on the grisliness of the assault, but by orchestrating it so we can focus on the message underneath. Dimitri sees what’s happening to Jen by Stan, and instead of intervening (or worse, joining), he turns around, pretends he didn’t see anything and continues about his day – even though he knows a terrible act is going on. Fargeat keeps the act in view via a window that looks into the backyard, but the focus is on the reflection, where we see Dimitri taking a lap in the pool – out of sight, out of mind. The ideas that can be drawn from this are staggering, especially the notion that while when women suffer it’s often at the hands of men or of those who stand by and do nothing…which are often men.
While she should have had an ally in Richard, he thinks only of himself and his livelihood and leaves her for dead after shoving her off a cliff, impaled on a dead tree (cue the blood show!). But like a Phoenix from the ashes, Jen struggles her way out and seeks her revenge. Lutz is a revelation in the role of Jen, demonstrating an immense gift for physical performance given her lack of dialogue. She limps, cries, rallies and keeps going, bringing it all to life with wrenching facial movements and utter control of her body. The role requires the spirit of determination and will to be physically brought to life, and she nails it with gripping realism.
Like any great action hero, she remains bloodied and beaten and not always in control. As she hunts down the men who wronged her, she is often at a disadvantage, having to overcome the men’s strength and their own prowess. The men in the roles are solid too. Janssens’ Richard is an heartless, smug, cruel individual who looks like he would happily raise the cost of cancer medicine by 700%; Bouchède as Dimitri is oafish but still dangerous, and has more to do than be the doofus fall guy and; Colombe gives the best performance of the three, his Stan coming off as a weak, entitled, cowardly man who spends time in constant fear at the notion of Jen’s survival. The three men are despicable and it’s incredibly satisfying to see what’s coming to them. The movie is called Revenge, after all, and when Jen gets hers it’s indeed severe. The blood-spattered kills earn the cheers they’re likely to receive from viewers, as she stabs eye sockets, blasts holes in their chests with a shotgun as big as she is and leaves them to die as a red-soaked pile of meat. As poignant as the movie’s philosophy is, let it never be said it doesn’t have the genre thrills to match. I often found myself put off by the kills, but I wanted to see these men suffer, so I fought through the gags and watched on.
What makes Jen’s struggle such a thrill to watch is that it’s as much about seeing her survive in the desert as it is exacting about her vengeance. Granted, I found myself wondering how she would know how to get herself out of such game-ending scenarios, like burning down the tree she was stuck to, or using a shredded beer can to cauterize the wound (thus giving her a Phoenix brand). It may go a bit above the suspension of disbelief for some, but I wanted her to survive so badly that I went along with it all. I have a feeling most will too.
Revenge is the best of both worlds in the exploitation genre. Fans of gore and nastiness will get it all by the bucket, while those open will find its topical, relevant themes make it a modern horror gem that deserves to be discussed. You really can’t go wrong, and as long as you’re willing to root for Jen and her journey of survival, Revenge will give you all the blood-soaked, poignant thrills you could hope for.