The Road to Revenge is a Toll Road: \"True Grit\" & \"Vengeance\"

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 718   By: Mark Leffler

13th January, 2011     0

"Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance [is] mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
Romans 12:19 King James Version

"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves."

Revenge has always been a popular theme for filmmakers. Older movie lovers will remember great rides like the original Payback with Michael Caine, Deathwish starring Charles Bronson and Vietnam vet revenge classics Rolling Thunder and Rambo: First Blood. More recently we've been thrilled by the Korean amazing retribution film Oldboy, part of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy.

There is something primal and visceral about the bloodlust for vengeance. Two recent movies, one a Western remake from the Coen Brothers, the other a Hong Kong action film, explore the morality of revenge and the price it exacts. Both are splendid films which stay with the viewer long after the credits roll.

True Grit is a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, both based on the 1968 book of the same name by Southern author Charles Portis. The Coen Brothers have made it clear that they did not screen the earlier film while writing and preparing their adaptation. It was the book and its strong and distinctive Southern voices that inspired their film.

The Coen Brothers remake is more faithful to the original novel, focusing on the character of fourteen year old Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge the murder of her father by a hired hand who has disappeared into Indian territory. The earlier movie was molded into a star vehicle once Wayne was signed to play U.S. Marshall Rueben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, an aging liquor-soaked lawman with a reputation as a killer.

Beautifully shot by award winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins in New Mexico, the Coen's follow Mattie (in a breakout performance by Hailee Steinfeld) as she persuades the reluctant Cogburn (played by The Big Lebowski himself, Jeff Bridges) to take the $50 bounty she offers. In a charming scene, Mattie finagles the money from a local merchant, selling him back horses her father had bought from the man in a remarkable feat of verbal manipulation that leaves him speechless and humbled.

There is no room for mercy or forgiveness in Mattie's journey of revenge. She declines the offer of a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) to join forces because she does not want her father's killer to face justice in Texas for other crimes. She wants him to die knowing that it is retribution for her father's murder. Nothing else will satisfy her, no matter how many older men patronizingly wish to send her home, leaving the violence and justice to the grown-ups. Men, in other words. She is obviously a woman out of her time, which will likely delight female viewers as well as most men who aren't, well, stupid.

And as with so many Coen Brothers movies, there is no shortage of stupid and violent men in True Grit. Fans of the Coen Brothers comedies like Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), or The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) may be surprised and shocked by the sudden and bloody violence in this film. But the Coen's have traveled this bloody road before in films like Miller's Crossing (1990), the Academy Award winning Fargo (1996), all the way back to their first major film Blood Simple (1984).

There is always, of course, a price to be paid for traveling the bloody road to vengeance. There is in True Grit, but what a glorious ride it is with the sure hands of the Coen Brothers at the helm. The three major leads are a joy to watch, and as with all Coen Brothers movies, the smaller roles are filled by quirky personalities and memorable faces.

True Grit has already grossed almost a million dollars at the box office, making it the Coen's largest grossing movie. It should remain in theatres for a while. Catch it if you can on the big screen before it moves to pay-per-view and DVD.

Hong Kong director Johnnie To's 2009 neo-noire Vengeance is a darker, more violent meditation on the retribution theme. To has been described as the best Chinese action director since John Woo, and this film makes the case. It's relentless pace and brilliantly choreographed shootouts can be fairly compared to Woo's classics like Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989).

French pop-rock icon Johnny Halliday plays Frank Costello, who arrives at the Macau hospital bedside of his French daughter who has barely survived a mob attack at her home that slaughters her Asian husband and two young sons. She begs her father to avenge their deaths. He vows he will, setting into motion a chain of events that are riveting to watch as they unfold.

To is a veteran master of this form, and this Hong Kong/French production should make him known beyond fans of Asian cinema. The role of Costello was originally offered to French film legend Alain Delon. Thankfully he declined after reading the script, because Halliday is quiet and mesmerizing in the role of the vengeful father.

A subtle understated score by Lo Tayu lays almost tender piano melodies under the film's most tense and violent scenes. Cheng Siu-Keung's lush cinematography renders the bloody shootouts into scenes of slow-motion poetry (one night time shootout in a park is as oddly beautiful and suspenseful as the duel between The Bride and O-Ren Ishi at The House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino's instant classic revenge saga Kill Bill).

Halliday's Costello is a man on a mission and there are hints early on that he is not unfamiliar with guns and violence. But in Macau he is a stranger in a strange land, and a random intersection with three Asian hit men leads to him offering the men a sizeable reward for helping him achieve vengeance for his daughter.

But there is a ticking time bomb, so to speak: Costello's memory. He has a bullet lodged in his skull that doctors have told him will rob him of his memory eventually. In a haunting scene, underscored with soft piano, he sits in his hotel room scribbling "vengeance" on crime scene photos to remind him of his vow to his daughter.

Needless to say, this turns into a significant plot point late in the film.

While I was thrilled to discover a new favorite director (and his earlier films will soon be on my Netflix queue) the real discovery of the film is how great an actor Halliday is. His face is a mask of repressed grief and fury. His eyes are slits of pain. French pop music is possibly the worst pop music in the world, so finding Halliday so amazing in this film is on the same level as if The Partridge Family's David Cassidy turned in a thespian performance that had critics calling him the new Brando or De Niro.

There is an old saying "revenge is a dish best served cold". The opening of Kill Bill credits it, facetiously as an "old Klingon proverb", but it actually first appeared in a 19th century French novel. Humans possess an almost insatiable appetite for this dish. Throughout history and art there are countless examples of people embarking on the path of retribution only to be undone by their bloodlust in pursuit of something resembling justice.

In his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder the greatest noire storyteller Raymond Chandler observed that "it is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little."

It is also true that while revenge is almost never a good thing to pursue in real life, it can make for a thrilling and cathartic experience. Both True Grit and Vengeance deliver that experience.


Please login to comment



Current Issue


Don't have an account?