FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail