Why do we think that revenge is the most logical reaction after someone hurts us? Revenge takes time and effort. Time and effort that could be better invested in our recovery.
What is our natural response when something bad happens to us? A long time ago, someone asked me: “Don’t you want to yell at me or something? Aren’t you going to insult me or say I’m the worst?” That was his reaction when I didn’t get visibly mad after I found out that he, a guy I was going out with, became someone else’s boyfriend without bothering to break up with me first. Before that happened, I had been wondering why he hadn’t texted or called in the last few days. Then, I saw a picture of him and his new girlfriend on Facebook. I was sad and a little angry, of course, but I didn’t think that it deserved a reaction, specially not a strong one. But he couldn’t understand that. Even though a vengeful reaction would have been bad (or at least very awkward) for him, he somehow wanted it. I remember that moment, and his questions, when I think about revenge and how normalized it is.
Why do we think that revenge is the most logical reaction after someone hurts us? Revenge takes time and effort. Time and effort that could be better invested in our recovery. But for some reason, most of us still choose to prolong the pain that the event caused us by replaying it in our minds over and over. The following films aren’t about getting mildly hurt by an inconsiderate jerk. They show the character’s reactions after being hurt by others in deeply horrifying ways, but even if we think that revenge is justifiable in some cases, and even if we find these films’ violent revenges satisfying, they all explore the idea that vengeance makes everything a lot worse.
Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook, is the story of Oh Dae-su, a man who was kidnapped and locked up inside a hotel room for 15 years. The reasons for his forceful confinement are unknown, and all he knows (thanks to the television set that’s in the room) is that his wife was murdered and he’s a suspect. He spends all that time planning his revenge, until he finally frees himself and his actual revenge begins.
This film brilliantly tackles the subject of vengeance, not only for its entertaining aspects, but as a predictable human impulse that gets counterproductive results. After watching what happens when he escapes, you’ll think that being locked up for years wan't that big of a deal.
John Wick (2014)
This film should be called “Not the puppy!” As Kate Murphy writes for The NY Times, “the most vengeful responses tend to be provoked when honor or identity is threatened, such as being spurned by a lover or having one’s family or religion maligned.” That’s why using the death of loved one (usually a girlfriend or a wife) to incite the very entertaining actions of a male character is a common Hollywood trope. This film does something a little bit different with it that is just as cheap but pretty successful: it kills the protagonist’s puppy.
As we watch a retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) seeking revenge for the killing of his deceased wife’s dog, we realize that his revenge makes us feel better, but it never alleviates John Wick’s pain. His vengeance is basically a distraction because he knows that he’ll never be happy again.
Irreversible, directed by Gaspar Noé, is a film about a woman who is brutally raped and beaten, and her boyfriend’s chaotic attempt at revenge. Here, the common trope is used in a different way. The story is told backwards, starting at the end and ending with the beginning, which brilliantly intensifies the feeling of powerlessness in the face of loss. As viewers, we come to understand Marcus (Vincent Cassel), his rage and his rash actions, and we’re simultaneously disturbed by the further damage he does to himself in the process. This film shows us that revenge is never rational or the result of careful thought, and that when our world is destroyed by pain, that pain only multiplies if we don’t actively try to stop it.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
This film was a hit in the US, but it was banned and censored in other countries. It's Wes Craven’s directorial debut, and it recreates any parent’s nightmare. After their daughter is raped and murdered by a group of fugitive criminals, the perfectly ordinary parents become criminals themselves as they avenge their daughter's brutal murder. The whole thing is triggered by an incredible coincidence: the unknowing parents let the group of criminals stay in their house, and they eventually find out about what their guests did to their daughter.
Throughout the movie, deeply traumatic events happen one after the other. And these situations are damaging not only to the victims but also to the perpetrators. What does life look like for the victim’s parents after their revenge? In what way does revenge help them heal? The obvious truth is that their actions only deepen their trauma.
Why are we so fascinated by revenge? In fiction, it’s a good source of entertainment, and many insightful films tackle it as a subject. But why do we keep this old, harmful habit in our lives? Every time we’re offended by someone’s comments and we decide to respond with more passive-aggression and hostility, we should remember that such small-scale revenge is simply lame, and it will never look as cool as it does on film.
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