In the wild west, only incels can hear you scream. And while “Revenge”screams vicarious empowerment through its destructive desert femme, the movie title itself is a far cry from accuracy: Revenge is only an added bonus along Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) mutilated, murderous path; self-defense from her beta-male rapist and his slightly more alpha accomplices are the real primary motivator. But writer and director Coralie Fargeat successfully argues that revenge and defense aren’t mutually exclusive, and that there’s no shame in smiling when these lonely lovers’ hearts are blasted onto the floor.
But before Jen was trotting barefoot through the desert with a high-powered shotgun riding on her back, she was a chique, twenty-something, beach blonde, consumed with LA dreams and an already luxurious reality. She’s spending a weekend at the posh retreat of Richard (Kevin Janssens), a handsome, French millionaire who’d have no trouble landing a woman like Jen even if he didn’t have cash. Two guys who’d have a much harder time grabbing her attention are Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillame Bouchede), Richard’s hunting buddies who wander up early and disrupt the couple’s weekend romance.
Perturbed by the duo’s silent, unsettling stares as she stands alone in her underwear, Jen manages to be friendly to Richard’s guests, regaling them with her hopes of being “noticed” in LA and even dancing seductively with Stan. With Richard away the next morning, Stan makes a move on Jen, struggling to say in the most polite and non-definitive terms why she doesn’t find him attractive. Stan doesn’t relent, raping Jen as Dimitri simply turns up the TV to mute the sound of her screams. Richard’s furious at the two when he arrives home, but all of that anger and blame gets flung back at the battered Jen. Richard lives up to his reputation as a ladykiller and unceremoniously pushes Jen off a cliff onto a tree where she’s impaled on a tree below, with the men agreeing to clean up the mess tomorrow.
It’s hard not to view Jen’s transformation as something of a rebirth. The movie explicitly states this through its on-the-nose imagery, with the dirty blonde Jen cauterizing her wounds late at night and waking up with sandy brunette hair a Phoenix branded on her belly the morning after. But Jen’s process feels more akin to a reawakening, like there was a dormant fighter residing in her soul who never had the chance to be freed until now.
Through this mindless murder attempt, Jen and Richard’s psyches are swapped. The previous, non-abused Jen was motivated mainly her Id, enthusiastically indulging in short, basic pleasures like sex with Richard, catchy songs on her iPod, and sips of bubbly champagne. Post-accident, she’s a woman motivated by Ego, consciously having to make rational, long-term decisions to survive with no short term pleasures nearby. And while Richard starts off as a man of Ego, coming up with several long-term solutions to deal with the Jen problem, he slowly is reduced to a savage of the Id, feeding into his most innate desires while unable to consider the long-term destructiveness of his actions.
But as Jen departs into the desert, ready to face her foes, Fargeat makes the wise decision by making her protagonist’s comeuppance as brutal and bloody as downright possible. In terms of savagery, “Revenge’s” action operates one step below the arm-amputation scene from “127 Hours,” and a healthy notch above the murders and massacres in “Drive” or the “Kill Bill” movies. When characters experience pain or sorrow, Fargeat makes sure to dwell in the moment and misery as long as possible, poignantly illustrating how the after-effects of abuse can be more damaging than the act itself.
Fargeat’s direction feels confident and assured, capturing swells of blood, emotion, bullets and glass without ever feeling overstuffed or oversoaked. Her story seems exaggerated but feels wholly true, conveying the banality of basic male impulses and humans’ longing desire to commit to social roles. Even after Richard supposedly takes care of the Jen situation, Stan still plays second-fiddle to his more macho friend, a wannabe winner who resorts to being the reluctant follower of the cool kid at school. But even though Richard expresses a clear disdain and disgust for Stan after the rape, he never once considered cutting his bro off or turning him in. To Richard, Jen is exotic but expendable, not a person but merely an easily discarded pleasure in favor of his friends.
The beta-male depiction of Stan and Dimitri is remarkably apt, considering the duo don’t even have photos of themselves on IMDb. While Dimitri is more pudgy and grotesque, the semi normal-looking Stan falls even further down on the ladder, actively trying to be Richard while Dimitri is comfortable with his foul, open-mouth-chewing self. When Jen admits her vague dream of being “noticed,” Stan wonders to himself, “well, why not by me?” But Fargeat gives us a sense that even if Jen was enthused by Stan’s advances, he still gets more satisfaction from a no than a yes.
“Revenge” is a remarkably appropriate movie for our times, when losers of yesterday have evolved into today’s vile, hate-spewing trolls of the internet, an era where powerful people prefer quick cover-ups over more difficult but much more resolute confessions. Matilda Lutz shines in the harsh desert son as a beacon of drama and dexterity, and Jannssens, Colombe and Bouchede magnify the dangers of toxic-masculinity through their dedicated performances. It’s an exploitation film of the highest order, a graciously, gory throwback to femme fatales of the 60s but this time with much more to say.