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The Philosophical Basis for Revenge Movies

For a college philosophy class, I once wrote a paper on the powerful allure of “Revenge Movies.” Working off the premise that the public’s appreciation of these movies springs from the same innate capacity that causes mankind to want to believe in Hell, I sought to connect theology with basic psychology.

The concept of Hell is both fascinating and revealing. Fascinating in that the concept is so patently farfetched, and revealing in that it represents the core belief that people who have been “bad” not only deserve to be punished, but deserve to be punished in the most horrific and dramatic manner possible—by being tortured by fire. Tortured by fire not for a mere hundred or even thousand years (which, apparently, would be a slap on the wrist), but for all eternity.

Consider: If we didn’t believe that being “good” truly mattered, the concept of Hell never would have taken root. Indeed, it never would have made the cut. If mankind didn’t believe, on some deep, dark, primordial level, that being a “bad” person rendered us deserving of hideous punishment, we would have howled with laughter at the very notion of Hell.

But we didn’t laugh; we embraced it. In fact, the notion of being consigned to eternal damnation for our sins not only resonated, it scared the bejeezus out of us. Although most people in the Western world no longer buy into the fire and brimstone version of it, the majority of us still rejoice in seeing truly “bad people” get punished.

Some refer to this punishment simply as “justice”; others are willing to go the extra mile and use the stronger term, “retribution.” Personally, I prefer to call it what it is: “Revenge.” Hence, the enduring popularity of revenge films. The following are four excellent movies, listed in no particular order. As for that philosophy paper, I received a grade of C+. Call it “justice.” I had no business being in college.

1. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Steve McQueen plays the young Max Sand, a half-breed Indian whose mother and father are murdered by three sadistic drifters. Not only murdered, but butchered and mutilated. After skinning McQueen’s mother alive, one of these psychopaths, Tom Fitch (played by Karl Malden), later fashions the skin of her breast into a tobacco pouch.

This ugly sequence is pretty much how the movie opens. But being the exquisitely gratifying revenge film it is, we can nonetheless settle back in our seats, content in the knowledge that the action will play out exactly as we hope, and that these terrible men will get everything they deserve. Although the 36-year old McQueen is clearly too old for the part, he’s terrific in this movie. As is Brian Keith, who plays his mentor.

2. DEATH WISH (1974). This might be the all-time gold standard of revenge films. It has everything: New York City during its rancid high-crime years, slobbering gargoyles roaming the streets preying on innocent people, and a mild-mannered but masculine Everyman who reluctantly becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (who better?!) plays a peace-loving architect (we learn that he was a conscientious objector during the war!) whose wife and daughter are viciously beaten and raped.

The wife dies from the beating, and the daughter, reduced to a pitiful fugue-like state, is committed to a mental institution. As for Bronson, he has no choice but to transform himself from doting husband and father into the most deadly vigilante the city of New York has ever seen. After serendipitously receiving a handgun as a gift, he goes around shooting every unsuspecting predator who dares approach him. A great movie.

3. THE BRAVE ONE (2007). Yet another film featuring a reluctant hero, and this time it’s a woman, the wonderful Jodie Foster, who plays a thoughtful, low-intensity intellectual talk radio host. True to the revenge formula, she and her boyfriend are attacked by bad guys in—where else?—Central Park. She is severely beaten, and the boyfriend is killed.

Afraid of emerging from her apartment, she avoids the world for a number of weeks before deciding to venture out and buy an unlicensed gun for her own protection. This purchase turns out to be a life-changer, as she morphs into a self-righteous, self-confident killing machine. You go, girl! The always excellent Terrence Howard plays a New York homicide detective—part existential hipster, part solitary Greek chorus. Don’t miss this one.

4. JOHN WICK (2014). This is the only movie in the group that features a non-amateur as the heroic revenge-taker, and, oh baby, what a “non-amateur” he is. Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, an ex-clandestine agent of the highest and most accomplished order, the most lethal field operative who ever lived, and the last guy in the world you would ever want to piss off.

A veritable one-man wrecking crew, Wick is universally recognized as being so dangerous and determined, the vile scum whom he is pursuing have no choice but to remain in a scared-shitless state of terror until he eventually kills every one of them. Reeves has never been better. A resounding thumbs-up.

David Macaray, a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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