Review: 'Revenge', Brutal Vengeance Flick Gets A Legit Feminist Spin

Oh boy. Another rape/victimhood movie in the vein of I Spit On Your Grave? These movies, in which a woman is usually depicted as utterly powerless at the hands of male attackers before turning the tables on them, are usually raked across the coals. They have been for decades, even in the midst of the feminist movement, and releasing one now while at the height of #MeToo and #TimesUp seems like a bad call, Ripley. A bad call. But then Coralie Fargeat's Revenge isn't quite like those other movies. Well, it is but it isn't. It's all in how the story is told that makes the difference, and having the right filmmaker to tell it.

Revenge is exactly what the title suggests, and chances are you can predict every single beat the story throws at you. Its greatest shocks aren't narrative but in the sheer amount of gore and violence on display. This movie is tough, bloody and often hard to watch because of the sheer amount of grotesque damage that's inflicted.  Where Fargeat's debut feature veers away from expectations is in the depiction of its protagonist, Jen (Matilda Lutz), who we first meet as the plaything for Richard (Kevin Janssens), a successful and very-married man who has whisked her away for a weekend sex romp at his desert vacation house. Both are gorgeous; he's powerful and handsome, she's practically dripping with sexual energy while seductively sucking on a lollipop. Jen is utterly irresistible, an enticing piece of eye candy that we can't look away from. Nor can Richard or his two heavily-armed friends, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), who have shown up early for a hunting trip. Jen doesn't seem to have much of a mind of her own. She wants to move to L.A. so she can get noticed, but getting noticed soon turns out to be the last thing she needs.

Fargeat spins what had been a light-hearted evening, in which Jen teases the men with a very provocative dance number, on a dime into something far more dangerous. The men are practically salivating over her, and it becomes clear if left to their own devices she would be in some trouble. And then she is. It takes until morning, but Stan, emboldened by the previous night's performance, rapes her while Richard is away. The dim-witted Dimitri sees it happening and does nothing, preferring to turn up the volume to drown out the sound. We aren't permitted to see the act being committed and that somehow makes it worse, Fargeat using a combination of differing camera angles and sound mixing to relay the horror Jen is going through. When Richard returns he tries to diffuse the situation, "I got you a job...in Canada", but when Jen refuses he and the others dispatch her in a way that seems quite final, and every bit as penetrating as the prior violence exacted on her.

But like any good vengeance movie, the protagonist proves stubbornly hard to kill. Everything about the movie changes at this point. The candy-coated hot pink colors fade, along with Jen's bubbly blond hair, replaced by caked-on blood, dirt, and sand. She no longer resembles a perky bimbo but a warrior straight out of Mad Max, but what is surprising, at least to me, is that this transformation doesn't suddenly empower her. She was powerful all along.

In most of these movies the woman is defined solely by her attackers. She is both a helpless victim, and then a merciless crusader for revenge. In the beginning, Fargeat lets us see Jen through the male gaze we've come to expect. Her camera leers over her every curve, sliding lower to give us just the barest peek underneath her skirt. But Jen isn't out of control even then; she is asserting a dominance over these men through her sexuality and it's embarrassing to them, in particular Stan, which is why he lashes out with violence. The power she wields is something very different later on as she stalks her male attackers one by one with increasing bloodlust. By contrast, Fargeat doesn't shy away from the barbarity of the assault on the men, and they too find themselves getting skewered in ways that nobody should have to see. And yet cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert forces us to see them; every shard of glass in an open wound, every knife through the eye, every bloated and stinking corpse in the stale water.

It's a demanding physical performance by Lutz, best known for her starring role in Rings. She doesn't say much in the movie, but she doesn't really need to. What she has to say is written all over her scarred body. The ferocity of the character she evolves into reminded me of Sharni Vinson's killer vengeance-seeker in You're Next, and I'd love to see those two pair up in a kick-ass action flick someday.

Revenge's story doesn't reinvent the rape/vengeance genre all by itself, it's Fargeat's choices as a filmmaker that set this film apart from the rest. Brutal and uncompromising, Revenge wears its feminism like a bloody badge of honor.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5