The Problem With Revenge Movies

Nicolas Cage's Seeking Justice is not only a bad action film—it's an example of the faulty idea that vengeance can be noble.

seeking justice 615 anchor bay.png "Revenge," says Dirty Harry, "is the oldest motivation known to mankind." And so it remains to this day. From Bruce Wayne's dead parents inspiring a lonely war against crime to the victims of September 11 inspiring a stupid war against Iraq, trauma and retribution remain the (more or less literal) lifeblood pumping through popular narrative. There are certainly other means of motivation, but tried and true is still best—take one loved one; rape or kill; have camera linger on anguish; watch the ensuing carnage.

If a crazy bad person kills, then that's evil. If a noble, comforting character kills—well that should be all right, then, says the movie.

The new film Seeking Justice is not just a typical revenge narrative though—it's a revenge narrative with pretensions to self-awareness. Will (Nicholas Cage) is a saintly teacher/do-gooder with a perfect marriage to Hollywood-adorable wife Laura (January Jones). Inevitably, Laura is brutally raped. But—and this is the clever bit—instead of going off and bloodily disemboweling the rapist on his own account, Will is contacted by a super-secret organization which offers to disembowel the rapist for him. In exchange they only ask that Will do a favor for them in the future. Said favor, to no one's surprise, is Morally Questionable, and Will's bleeding heart worldview, his marriage, and even his life are threatened—though not, alas, really questioned.

The set-up is painfully contrived, and the film is littered with the usual plot holes, as the super-secret organization alternates at random between godlike competence and Three-Stooges-level ineptness. Matters aren't helped any by Nicholas Cage, who is spectacularly miscast as a mild-mannered everyman. Given the New Orleans setting, I kept hoping for a reprise of his unhinged performance in Bad Lieutenant—or at the very least an iguana reaction shot. But, alas, there are no iguanas, and no top-drawer Cage performance either. Instead, we get the low-key, empathetic Cage, who wanders through the film looking soddenly pained. He seems to have just noticed that he's going bald, but is trying not to think about it.

The real disappointment here, though, is not with the mechanics or the star, but with what I suppose we have to call the film's vision. Rape-revenge films are often crude, but that crudity can at least connote a kind of honesty. In I Spit on Your Grave, for example, both the rape and the revenge are bluntly dehumanizing. Victim and assailant become little more than bloody hunks of meat, empty corpses shuffling through a hell in which they are both the demons and the tormented. Those who suffer violence and those who commit it are joined in a terrible embrace. "Such," says Simone Weil, "is the nature of force. Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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