Revenge (2017) Spins An Exploitation Subgenre on its Head
A subgenre of exploitation films, the rape-revenge thriller has a controversial place within the larger horror genre. Films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave were courting controversy in the 1970’s. While both of these films have been remade in the last decade, critical attention on sexual violence in media has only intensified in recent years. Critically-acclaimed HBO show, Game of Thrones, has been frequently centered out for its graphic depictions of sexual violence.
In addition to concerns about the actual depictions of sexual violence, critics have singled out the narrative of a female character needing to experience horrific victimization to become empowered as problematic. Now the most recent example of the rape-revenge film, Revenge, is being distributed by horror-streaming platform Shudder. Revenge was well received last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition, Revenge is potentially distinguished from its predecessors by virtue of the fact that it is written and directed by a woman.
Revenge largely follows the expected narrative of the rape-revenge film. Matilda Lutz is Jen, the young American mistress to married millionaire, Richard. At the film’s outset, the two secret lovers arrive via private helicopter to Richard’s desert’s house for a weekend together before his friends arrive for a hunting trip. To Richard’s disappointment, his friends – Dimitri and Stan – show up a day early spoiling his secret affair. Following a night of drinking, Jen is sexually assaulted by the jealous Stan. When Richard refuses to let her leave, Jen tries to escape but is cornered, pushed off a cliff, and left for dead. Miraculously surviving her fall, Jen turns the tables and begins hunting her tormentors.
Visually Stylish and Suspenseful Thriller
Director Coralie Fargeat deserves a lot of credit for distinguishing Revenge from similar films with an excess of of genuine visual flair and style. Each of the film’s action scenes are well-choreographed and edited, with no shaky cam reducing the comprehensibility of what’s actually happening. There’s a creative energy channeled into these set-pieces with Robrecht Heyvaert’s cinematography bathing the desert landscape in sun-bleached colours. Horror fans will also be pleased with the grindhouse-style gore and buckets of blood spilled in Revenge. In particular, a cauterization scene involving a cut-open beer can may have some viewers squirming uncomfortably.
Despite working with a familiar narrative, Fargeat still manages to leave you wondering what and how things will transpire.
Genuine moments of suspense are also effectively built over the course of Revenge. Despite working with a familiar narrative, Fargeat still manages to leave you wondering what and how things will transpire. A desert road showdown with Stan, for instance, introduced far more tension and doubts about the film’s conclusion that I would have anticipated. And the climatic ‘cat-and-mouse’ chase through Richard’s house offers a truly tense ending to Revenge that ought to prompt a lot of white-knuckling. Simply put, this final scene stands up to similar moments from some of the best thrillers.
A Powerful Subtext Among the Grindhouse Violence
Much has been made of the fact that Revenge, a rape-revenge thriller, is written and directed by a woman. In addition to infusing Revenge with some dazzling visuals and suspense, Fargeat works in an interesting subtext among the violence and gore that would likely be absent if made by a man. Prior to the rape scene, Revenge almost plays out like your standard Hollywood ‘buddy’ sex comedy with Lutz’s Jen being objectified by the camera and coming across as little more than a prop. Even Richard’s friends – Stan and Dimitri – resemble common stock characters from sex comedies. Stan, for example, could easily substitute for a Stifler-type character from the American Pie films.
In addition to infusing Revenge with some dazzling visuals and suspense, Fargeat works in an interesting subtext among the violence and gore that would likely be absent if made by a man.
Fargeat’s handling of the actual sexual assault scene instantly distinguishes Revenge from films like Ms. 45 or I Spit on Your Grave. While the scene clearly establishes what is about to transpire, Fargeat does not focus on the act violence. Instead, she opts to show the reaction of Dimitri, Richard’s other friend, who is aware of what is happening but walks away. For a moment, the camera lingers on Dimitri as it appears he has some doubt before he turns on the television. The decision to focus on the ‘bystander’ and his apathy says a lot about the entitlement and misogynistic attitudes that contribute to sexual violence.
Following the rape scene, Fargeat flips the buddy ‘fantasy’ narrative on its head, giving Jen agency and allowing her to indulge in the male-oriented fantasies characteristic of so many action films. Some viewers will take issue with Jen’s inexplicable survival as well as the almost preternatural feats she performs. Yet these aspects of Revenge are in keeping with the film’s subtext. It’s arguably not much different from what you would find in a Rambo film. In fact, Jen’s survival from the fall and the cauterization scene directly call back to scenes from First Blood and Rambo III. These aspects of Revenge serve as a form of criticism of the male entitlement and fantasy that fuels real-world sexual violence.
Coralie Fargeat is a Filmmaker to Watch in the Future
Revenge is not a perfect film. A few scenes in the film would have benefited from some trimming in the editing room to tighten up the film’s pacing. With regards to the criticisms of the rape-revenge subgenre itself, by virtue of its existence, Revenge may still be considered by some to be servicing an outdated and toxic narrative. Nevertheless, Revenge spins this exploitation subgenre on its head while delivering a visually stunning overload of grindhouse gore. Matilda Lutz is outstanding in her restrained performance and writer-director Coralie Fargeat announces herself as a filmmaker to watch out for in the future.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A-