In “Star Trek,” the Klingons have a saying: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” If that’s true, then Dwight, the hapless revenge seeker in the indie thriller “Blue Ruin,” overcooks his revenge in the microwave, takes it out without an oven mitt, burns his fingers and drops it on the ground where it is immediately beset upon by fire ants.
A search for revenge is a popular theme in movies, allowing supposedly good characters the chance to get their hands dirty in the name of justice. “Point Blank,” “Get Carter,” the last four Quentin Tarantino movies — all are sleek entertainment vehicles where an antihero seeks to get even, and lets nothing stand in his or her way.
In fact a recent New York Times article by Alexander Huls showed how a “revenge finale” is baked into so many summer blockbusters, an almost essential screenwriter step as shown in Blake Snyder’s how-to guide “Save The Cat!” A beloved supporting character in order to raise the stakes for the finale, adding a final boost of emotional fuel for the good guy to defeat the bad guy. Iron Man fights for Pepper Potts in “Iron Man 3,” Spock fights for Kirk in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” The Avengers fight for Agent Coulson (heck, they’re called the Avengers after all). Of course, once the smoke clears, we find that the dead aren’t so dead after all. No matter — they’ve been avenged anyway.
But maybe more interesting are the films where revenge isn’t so simply attained. Dwight’s plight in “Blue Ruin” is a dandy example of this kind of revenge plot. Sometimes the complications are merely technical, as the revenge seeker finds himself in far more trouble than he bargained for. Other times the trouble is more moral in nature, as the revenge seeker begins to question the very purpose of seeking revenge in the first place.
Dwight has both problems on his narrow shoulders. He screws up again and again in the film, from leaving his car and car keys at a murder scene to missing a shot at a bad guy in a trunk from three yards away. With a rifle. But even more interesting is his moral predicament — he learns late in the film that he’s seeking his vengeance on the wrong man, and the real killer is beyond his reach. But it’s too late to turn back.
Another great example of a quest for vengeance gone awry is Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” in which Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man hunting for his wife’s killer. Famously, he has no short-term memory, writing clues all over his body to keep himself on the right trail. But as the film unspools backwards in time, we learn that Leonard’s quest was being manipulated by a corrupt cop, that Leonard’s wife’s death may have been accidental. Now Leonard is caught in a feedback loop, forever pursuing an imaginary killer for vengeance that will never come.
Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” was more directly concerned with the moral cost of revenge. At first, the mission of five Israeli agents to kill the terrorists responsible for the massacre of Olympic athletes in 1972 seems almost noble, at least understandable. But as the agents get deeper and deeper, the collateral damage piles up, the terrorists and their allies seek their own revenge, and the clean, righteous endpoint the Israelis sought gets lost. The obsession is illustrated in a notorious (and rather heavy-handed) finale where Avner (Eric Bana) finds his head filled with images of the massacre as he’s trying to make love to his wife.
But the masterpiece of revenge gone awry may be Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy. In “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” a laid-off factory worker kidnaps the daughter of the boss who fired him, and the pair become locked in a violent battle of reprisals. In “Oldboy,” a a man goes on a hellbent, hammer-swinging quest for revenge against the man who imprisoned him for 17 years, only to find himself hurtling into the trap set by his adversary — a trap laid, of course to seek revenge.
And in “Lady Vengeance,” a woman entraps a child killer with the help of other victims’ relatives, only to find their retribution leaves them hollow. In the last scene, the Lady plants her face into the top of a cake, the white frosting mask symbolizing the long-lost innocence she can’t ever get back.
Which reminds me of another proverb from an ’80s movie, this one attributed to the Chinese by James Bond in “For Your Eyes Only”: “Before setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves.”