From Charles Bronson in ''Death Wish'' to Hugh Jackman in the new film ''Prisoners,'' Hollywood has made a blood sport of vigilante justicel; our critic looks at the changing nature — and enduring appeal — of revenge movies

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 06, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Lone Justice. Revenge.

Taking the law into your own hands. For decades, these things have been the raw meat of Hollywood action thrillers — the sort of movies that serve up vigilante heroism as ruthless, bloodthirsty entertainment. It’s not hard to see why: In a world where a great many of us carry around petty (or not so petty) resentments, revenge offers a special form of catharsis. It’s about people doing what, at certain points, we all fantasize about doing. Just think of Charles Bronson, a walking statue of stoic wrath in Death Wish (1974), as he mows down criminals to avenge the death of his wife. (What he did for love!) Or Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979), telling the hooligan he has handcuffed to an explosive that he will have time to save himself if he saws through his own ankle. Or Uma Thurman in Kill BillVol. 1 (2003), slicing and dicing her way through armies to get to the scoundrel who left her for dead. Or Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), turning himself into the warrior-slave rock star of the Colosseum as he waits to force the emperor to meet his maker. Revenge in these movies is mean and nasty, and it’s also good, clean, righteous fun.

But then there’s the kind of movie that salutes lone-wolf justice and, at the same time, makes you feel the spiritual toll it takes — the kind of thriller that’s exciting, cathartic, and powerfully disturbing all at once. Prisoners (rated R, out Sept. 20) is that kind of movie: It’s rooted in 40 years of Hollywood vigilante films, yet it also breaks audacious new ground. The film stars Hugh Jackman, in a staggering performance of unbridled rage that’s unlike anything he has done before, in the role of Keller Dover, a brawny survivalist who is also a gentle-voiced suburban dad. On a rainy Thanksgiving afternoon, Keller brings his wife (Maria Bello) and kids over to the home of neighborhood friends (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). The two families eat, drink, and joke around, and nothing too remarkable happens — until everyone realizes that Keller’s little daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), has left the house and disappeared, along with the other family’s daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).

A search turns up nothing, but later that night the police find a pale, mute young creep (Paul Dano) in smudged aviator frames and oily long hair hanging around in his skeevy RV camper — the same vehicle that the girls were trying to crawl up the ladder of that afternoon. The cops, led by an uncharacteristically moody and badass Jake Gyllenhaal, arrest this damaged-looking sad sack, interrogate him, and find no evidence. So they let him go. But Keller, after an encounter with the suspect outside the police station, is convinced that he’s guilty. So he takes action. He kidnaps the creep, brings him to an abandoned apartment building, and beats him to a bloody pulp, over and over again. He threatens to kill the young man unless he confesses. But the suspect/victim says nothing.

If he is, in fact, innocent, then what Keller is doing is an unholy atrocity. But what if he’s guilty? Are Keller’s one-man torture-squad tactics justified then? And what if many people (along with the law) declare that no, those tactics are still not justified? What should Keller do, given that every bone in his body is telling him that this is the only way he’ll ever see his daughter again? What if every bone in his body is right?

Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, is no shallow payback thriller. It’s a dazzlingly potent, ambitious, and complex movie, a film that forces you to ask questions that have no easy answers. What I’ve described is merely the film’s first act. There are a great many twists and turns — both suspenseful and thematic — to come. Yet at the heart of Prisoners is something primitive and elemental and gripping, an obsession with torture, morality, and the impotence of the justice system that speaks to our time as intensely (and maybe controversially) as pitch-dark thrillers like Death Wish and Dirty Harry once spoke to theirs.

It’s no accident that the heyday of the revenge film as a kind of vicious morality play was the early 1970s. As the happy hedonism of the ’60s gave way to the scuzzy free-for-all of the post-counterculture era, violent crime was on the rise — but so was the liberalization of law enforcement. The Miranda ruling, which expanded the rights of suspected criminals, dates back only to 1966, and some thought that the police had been shackled by it. That was the conflict at the core of Dirty Harry (1971), the brutal classic in which Clint Eastwood plays a detective whose snarl and rasp and bring-the-pain bravado tell you that he’s really a vigilante, a renegade who merges the spirits of cop and executioner. (Revenge — the spectacle of it, and also the justification for it — became the cornerstone of Eastwood’s legend.)

That same year, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs showcased Dustin Hoffman as a nebbishy mathematician who must defend his home against a pack of British goons, one of whom raped his wife. The violent showdown becomes a test of the Hoffman character’s machismo, as this nervous geek who lives inside his head uses a shotgun, a fireplace poker, boiling oil, and a mantrap to save himself. In that sense, Straw Dogs is the defining movie of the vigilante ’70s. The critic Pauline Kael dubbed it ”a fascist work of art,” but it’s really a squirmy fable of manhood, of what it takes to stand up for yourself when no one else will. And that’s the emotion that every vigilante movie, in one way or another, taps into.

By the ’90s, revenge films were in our blood. So maybe it was inevitable that American politicians would start to feed off the ethic of let’s-wipe-out-the-criminal-scum demagoguery that defined vigilante justice in the movies. Thirty years after Death Wish, even liberals didn’t quarrel with the results of New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on crime, though the tone he struck toward criminals bordered on the vengeful. After 9/11, President George W. Bush adopted the language of Hollywood vigilante justice (”Wanted: dead or alive”), which arguably set the stage for the Iraq war as a misplaced form of revenge-movie payback, with Saddam Hussein ”standing in” for Osama bin Laden. (Kill the villain you can see to vent your anger at the one you can’t.) More recently, the Trayvon Martin case — and, in fact, the entire issue of ”stand your ground” laws — represents the specter of Bronsonesque movie justice brought into the real world.

Last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, the supreme thriller about the hunt for bin Laden, isn’t technically speaking a revenge drama, yet in a certain sense it is: America is attacked, and the powers that be do Whatever It Takes to find bin Laden, including torture, which in the movie establishes a crucial link in the chain of clues that led to his discovery. Does that mean that Zero Dark Thirty implicitly endorses the use of torture? Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said no; if you forget their statements and simply look at the movie, I would say yes.

The sin at the dark heart of Prisoners is child abduction, not terrorism, yet it’s still very much a post-Zero Dark Thirty movie. Keller’s remorseless treatment of his suspect echoes America’s treatment of its captives at Abu Ghraib and other hidden locales after 9/11. Only this time it’s personal: a desperate father out to save his daughter. Prisoners takes the mythic simplicity of the vigilante film and adds arresting layers of ambiguity. Watching the movie, we behold Keller’s actions and feel that they may be horribly unjustified — a daring place for a movie to put its hero — and we also behold his actions and feel that they may be what true morality demands. It’s a sign of the film’s power that either scenario could turn out to be true, and that each one is just as scary.

Death Wish

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  • R
  • Eli Roth