Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: Revenge (2018)

Revenge (2018)

Rated R for strong bloody gruesome violence, a rape, sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language

Score: 5 out of 5

The "rape and revenge" genre of films is a rather notorious one. Popularized by the 1978 exploitation film I Spit on Your Grave, a rape and revenge movie can be summed up with the name alone: somebody (usually a woman) gets raped, and that person, or their loved ones, sets out to get revenge on the people (usually men) who did it. Rape is one of the most horrifying and degrading things that one can experience (at least with murder, the suffering ends when the victim is dead), making it seemingly perfect subject matter for a horror movie that wants to go to some really dark places. However, it is precisely because of the awful -- and non-fatal -- nature of rape that any horror movie that uses it to traumatize its characters has to walk a very fine line in doing so, because there is undoubtedly somebody in the audience who has experienced it themselves and is likely to have old wounds torn back open by watching it. Furthermore, given that the rape scene is, by definition, a sex scene, some level of nudity and titillation is hard to avoid. Many films in the rape and revenge genre have been accused of lingering on the "rape" part of the equation, using the genre as an excuse to showcase beautiful women getting sexually violated in a downright twisted invocation of the male gaze and then using the "revenge" half to cover their asses with a thin message of female empowerment.

So that brings us to today's film, Revenge, which answers the question: what if a feminist woman made one of these movies?

The answer is a profoundly vicious, brutal, and stupendously violent little film. This is a movie that reportedly drove somebody to have a seizure at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and while the article I linked lets you know what scene did it, I wouldn't have guessed before reading it which one it was because there are just too many disgusting and horrifying scenes to choose from. This is a movie where the rape scene is only a couple of minutes long and presented almost matter-of-factly, but which soon makes up for it with graphic, wall-to-wall blood and guts in the tradition of the 2000s New French Extremity movement, which I'm shocked didn't get this film slapped with an NC-17 rating. This is a movie where a character takes peyote and it feels as though writer/director Coralie Fargeat personally injected some of it into your veins. This is a hyper-stylized, acid-trip fever dream of a movie that unloads a fully-loaded 12-gauge on rape culture, one that I don't think I watched so much as I got fucked up by. If you have the stomach for it, this is one that you should not miss.

We start with Richard, a married, wealthy, and handsome Frenchman, heading to a luxurious house in the desert for his annual hunting trip, his beautiful American mistress Jennifer in tow. Richard's hunting buddies Stan and Dimitri arrive soon after, and immediately take a liking to the flirty, sexy, scantily-clad Jen. Stan in particular decides that, when it comes to consent, the sexy dance Jen did for the group the prior night is good enough, and rapes her while Dimitri, more interested in taking a dip in the pool, stands by and does nothing. When Richard finds out, he tries to keep Jen silent and prevent her from letting his wife know about both their affair and his rapist friend, first by trying to bribe her and then, when that fails, through violence. Richard, Stan, and Dimitri chase Jen out into the desert and push her off a cliff, leaving her for dead while they come back with their hunting gear to dispose of the body. Jen, however, survived, albeit badly injured, and what follows for the next hour is a twisted battle for survival as Jen first flees her pursuers and then, against all odds, turns the tables on them.

This is a movie where the characters ostensibly speak in two languages, English (for scenes between Jen and Richard) and French (for scenes between Richard, Stan, and Dimitri), and unofficially also speak in the universal tongue of grunts of anger and screams of agony. Once the real action starts in the desert, the dialogue is minimal. Which makes it all the more amazing how Fargeat managed to pull off the feat of crafting four separate well-rounded characters in a film where there are no supporting players to shoulder the load. From the start, Richard is the leader of the group who invited them all to his vacation home, a take-charge, take-no-prisoners, take-no-bullshit guy who, in another movie where he wasn't trying to cover up a rape, might've been action hero material. Stan, the rapist, is portrayed as a fairly dweebish, weaselly asshole, whether he's trying to talk his way into Jen's pants before deciding that he won't take no for an answer, sitting in the Range Rover with the A/C running listening to Jen's iPod while his friends actually do the job of searching for her (because "somebody needs to stay behind in case she comes back"), or generally serving as the albatross around his friends' necks during the hunt for Jen. Finally, Dimitri gives off an air of a sociopathic gun-nut dudebro who thinks he's way tougher than he actually is and only cares about what makes him feel good, as evidenced when, after walking in on Stan raping Jen, he decides to crank up the radio in order to block it out of his mind. Despite being French, he would feel right at home in America (Florida especially), starting with the fact that his weapon of choice is a ridiculously pimped-out shotgun loaded with "tactical" features in contrast to Richard's more mundane shotgun and Stan's hunting rifle. While this film's worldview comes mainly through subtext rather than explicitly stating it, that subtext is clear: these are a group of entitled and wealthy men whose egos and privilege have led them to believe that they can take anything they want, from wild animals to women. These three men may just be different flavors of douchebag, but they were quite different flavors indeed, each of them brimming with a uniquely repulsive personality brought to life by both their actors and the subtlety of the writing such that I knew who each of them was just by looking at them.

The real show-stopper, however, was Matilda Lutz as Jen. Starting the movie as a hot blonde bimbo prancing around in crop tops, mini-dresses, and underwear, the sort of person who would likely be among the first victims in a slasher movie by all appearances, by the end she has become virtually unrecognizable, in appearance or personality. Her bubbly personality transitions swiftly to fear and trauma from the moment she realizes that Stan won't take no for an answer up until she wakes up from her brush with death, and then transforms (most markedly during one of the most grueling and badass "performing first aid on yourself" scenes I've ever witnessed) into what I can only call Beast Mode as she goes to any and all lengths to survive. Even though, for much of the second half of the movie, she's stripped down to even less clothing than she was before, she comes across less as the sexpot from those early scenes and more as a female version of a shirtless John Rambo or Dutch Schaefer from Predator. Her behavior is more like that of another famous John from an action franchise, McClane from Die Hard. Her wounds are shown to hobble her but not stop her as she spends the second half of the film, especially right after her injury, limping and struggling to stay standing from the painful damage she's suffered, such that, while I figured she was going to kill the bad guys, the real question was whether or not she herself would live to tell about it. (Does she? That I won't spoil.) Her ability to make use of everything she has at her disposal, from her iPod's headphones to the glass in her flashlight's lens, is almost preternatural, such that, even though the film itself never comes out and directly states that anything supernatural is going on, a fair case can be made by the viewer (especially given the religious associations of the peyote that she takes to numb the pain) that Jen has been possessed by some kind of vengeful spirit. Lutz is a star in the making, demonstrating here that she can carry a hardcore action-horror movie on her shoulders and that she doesn't deserve to be slumming it in crap like Rings.

Behind the camera, Fargeat makes amazing use of both her low budget and her setting. The contrast between Richard's posh and clean vacation home and the rugged, empty desert that surrounds it is stark, making the former feel truly isolated from the world; it's an island of civilization that can only be reached by helicopter, and it feels like it. The visual style makes little use of explicit camera trickery even during a big peyote hallucination scene, but it still feels less like gritty realism and more like the hyper-reality of a Michael Bay movie, albeit with a greater fondness for long takes and stable shots over music-video editing. The film is vibrant with its colors and overall aesthetic, its action scenes grounded and focused in establishing geography all while the desert scenes drive home just how alone the four main characters are. The violence is astonishingly brutal, gory, and in-your-face, with nobody dying quickly or easily; powered by sheer adrenaline, the characters suffer through grisly wounds as they hunt each other down. Just as this film was a demo reel for Lutz as an action heroine, so was it a demo reel for Fargeat as somebody who deserves to helm a Hollywood action movie, demonstrating on her first try more talent than 90% of the hacks currently making such. Of special note is how she portrays sex on screen. There are titillating sex scenes early in this film, most notably one of the opening scenes where Jen gives Richard a blowjob, but critically, all of them are consensual. Jen is depicted as a sex object throughout the first act, but only in scenes where she is willfully presenting herself as such, putting on skimpy outfits for the pleasure of her boyfriend -- and speaking of, Richard is sexualized just as much, with multiple scenes of his chiseled physique butt naked (penis and everything). And critically, all that sexualization downright vanishes during the rape scene. We witness it from two perspectives intercut with each other: that of Jen, the camera focusing on her face and the tears streaming down it in fear and shame, and that of Dimitri, who apathetically ignores it. There is nothing sexy about watching Jen being raped, and the horror for her only gets deeper afterwards as she finds that the man she trusted cares more about his reputation than his lover. Again, this is a film that leaves a lot of its messaging as subtext, but makes it very clear what that subtext is. Jen's rape will go ignored by a person (or system) that she put her faith in, sweeping it under the rug because such things only matter to wealthy men insofar as it can threaten their status.

The Bottom Line

A subversion of the more questionable tropes of the rape and revenge movie that avoids the genre's sleaze but delivers on everything else and then some, Revenge is of the best action-horror movies I've seen in a long while, and a standout for everybody involved, not least of all its star Matilda Lutz and creator Coralie Fargeat. See it... if you dare.

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