They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but I beg to differ – it’s best served with a side of cinematic genius. In this list, I strive to give to you revenge movies in a host of different genres (horror, drama, western, etc) that are not as well known as they perhaps should be.
These are some of the finest cinematic works approaching a subject that’s inevitably intertwined with human nature, the very thing cinema is supposed to examine.
10. Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
In one of the rare late-career parts that deserve him, Michael Caine delivers a strongly emotional performance as the title character in “Harry Brown,” an ex-serviceman turned vigilante when his best friend is murdered by local thugs. What could be pure B-movie shlock turns into a worthy exploration of the vigilante mentality, and a sobering look into the attitudes of lawmen and women when faced with public outrage.
Emily Mortimer plays well against Caine in such a part, and Daniel Barber’s strong direction suggests that, if provided better material, he could show himself to be one hell of a filmmaker. As it is, “Harry Brown” rests at the bottom of our list as a good recommendation, but not a stunning film.
9. Hard Candy (David Slade, 2005)
This bloody, thorny revenge thriller by David Slade started a conversation about rape, pedophilia, justice and vigilantism that’s been raging ever since. It’s not a sophisticated film, but more of a blunt instrument; a twisty, confrontational story about a girl luring a possible pedophile through the internet and enacting bloody revenge upon him.
Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson make for brilliant scene partners here; their energies as performers juxtapose nicely against the cruder parts of Brian Nelson’s smart, but definitely not subtle, script. Slickly directed and shot, “Hard Candy” is as engaging a piece of entertainment as any film on this list.
8. The Brave One (Neil Jordan, 2007)
Back in 2007, Jodie Foster was already being picky about her acting projects, which I suppose makes it curious that one of them was “The Brave One,” a revenge thriller that flew largely under the radar for its curious mix of genre and prestige sensibilities. It’s really a typical Neil Jordan film in that sense, a vigilante story with a philosophical, almost contemplative overtone that nevertheless turns into an action thriller in the end.
Foster is predictably great as Erica Bain, a radio personality whose life is turned upside down when a brutal attack claims her fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews). After looking to pull herself up in every way possible, Bain turns to violence, and as her revenge leaves a trail of blood through New York City, we are gifted with a weird, tense, great little film that deserves to be rediscovered.
7. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
The first part of an unfinished Scottish/Danish trilogy about vengeance, and Andrea Arnold’s first feature in the director’s chair, “Red Road” tells of a CCTV operator named Jackie (Kate Dickie), who spots a familiar face from the past on the monitors and begins to stalk him, plotting a terrible revenge.
We don’t get to know what the man has done to her until the third act of the film, so Arnold’s film (and Dickie’s stunning performance) are both tinted by information they have, and we don’t. A clever mystery and a harrowing drama, “Red Road” plays the complex emotions of vengeance in a way that few modern films have.
6. Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1985)
Quite possibly the best of a flurry of exploitation revenge thrillers in the 1970s and 80s (think “The Last House on the Left” and “I Spit On Your Grave”), Abel Ferrara’s kinetic “Ms. 45” is still lesser known for its even more explosive, subversive, progressive undertones. The plot concerns a mute, timid seamstress named Thana (the instantly iconic Zoë Lund), who’s raped twice in one day and, on the same night, leaves the house armed with a .45 pistol, randomly shooting men.
Ferrara’s film is brilliant in pursuing a pop-infused aesthetic expression of scorched-earth revenge, making his literally and metaphorically silenced protagonist rebel not directly against those who do her harm, but against anyone who would take advantage of the system that permits them to do so. “Ms. 45” should be a cult classic by now.