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.

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"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.

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."

In I Spit on Your Grave—or, for that matter, in Hamlet—the trauma and the revenge are not opposed, but complementary. Vengeance is not just a response to violence; it's a continuation of it, and in many ways a capitulation to it. You become what you hate, and that becoming is both exhilaration and despair.

Seeking Justice seems at first to be thinking about such contradictions. Will does, after all, choose vengeance, and that choice leads him into an escalating web of paranoia, violence, and fear. But unfortunately that paranoia, violence, and fear are never allowed to tarnish his essential humane blandness. Will, we are assured, is a good person. He may have authorized a hit on his wife's rapist, but, as he says, he wasn't himself when he did so. His real self, the essential Will, is not a murderer, and remains not a murderer no matter how many people he kills in self-defense or just by-the-way. He has looked upon death, and death has obligingly reflected back the face of a standard issue Hollywood protagonist.

The bad guy (Guy Pearce) is also easily identifiable; he's the one ranting maniacally at the end. And it is that ranting, not the violence, the film assures us, which is at fault. Vigilante justice is reduced to a personnel problem. If a crazy bad person picks out people to kill, then that's evil. If a noble, comforting character actor like Xander Berkeley is in charge of picking out the people to kill—well that should be all right, then.

During the crazy rant, the bad guy take a moment or two to sneer at Will for wanting to keep his hands clean—for being unwilling to do the dirty work of justice that needs to be done if New Orleans is to recover from its post-Katrina malaise. It's the sort of thing that bad guys are always ranting about, and this one is too generic to really sell it—but he does have a point. Will has had his bloody revenge and his innocence too. In Seeking Justice, as, supposedly, in our foreign policy, the virtuous can pile up the bodies as they will without ever staining their virtue. Violence is simply a tool, to be used for bad ends or good. There's some truth to that perhaps. But if rape-revenge shows us anything, it's that violence is also a narrative, and that, bad or good, when we choose that story, we do its will, not the other way around.