' ' Cinema Romantico: Motifs in Cinema '12: Revenge & Justice

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Motifs in Cinema '12: Revenge & Justice

"Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across 22 film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists." - Andrew K.


Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a Goon. He would like to be considered a Hockey Player but for the fact he is an inept skater and fails to grasp the finer points of hockey strategy. Instead he idles on the bench until a violent incident arises at which point he is summoned to the ice specifically to seek out the opposing team's offender. He drops his gloves and he and the perp exchange punches until blood is drawn and bruises are inflicted.

But, is Glatt's mission to acquire justice or dole out revenge? Or has the line become utterly blurred between the two? And does no even care if it has?

The age-old notions of Revenge & Justice were prominent at the cinema in 2012. The Top 4 grossing movies in America - The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall - all in their respective ways dealt with these ideas, some more explicitly than others. Of course, the idea of revenge has a driving plot point has been around on film for ages, whether it was John Wayne doing John Wayne things ("You're soft, you should have let 'em kill me, 'cause I'm gonna kill you") or Charlie Bronson doing Charlie Bronson things or poor Ken getting even for the death of his beloved Wanda. We like to see justice served by any means necessary.

Steven Soderbergh's supremely but subtly self-aware Haywire very purposely seems to offer no logical reason as to why anyone in the film would would want Gina Carano's super-duper secret agent Mallory Kane dead except that if no one wanted her dead, well, Haywire would cease to exist. Thus, everyone wants her dead, she spends the majority of the movie kicking ass and, thus, with a sly nod and a wink Soderbergh illustrates the extreme importance of revenge to the motion picture.

Lincoln, on the other hand, Steven Spielberg's handsome recitation of Abraham Lincoln's attempt to push through the 13th Amendment, is all about justice. Or is it? Make no mistake, I implicitly admire the work of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. But the character that has stayed with me just as much since the close of the credits is W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), the uncouth lobbyist who spends as much time eating and drinking as Brad Pitt does in the Ocean's movies even as he navigates his way around Capital Hill in an effort to strong-arm undecideds into backing Honest Abe. Perhaps the film's ultimate moment occurs when Bilbo, standing in the chamber balcony, ignores the obligatory John Williams stately score swelling on the soundtrack, steps forward to seek out Ohio congressman Clay Hawkins (Walton Goggins) whom he and Abe need to switch sides and points his index finger at him in the manner of a six-shooter before squeezing the "trigger". Translation: contribute to justice for all or else we will have our revenge.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, meanwhile, thirsts for both revenge and justice. Looking into our nation's grotesque nooks and crannies, it purposely makes a mess of America's messy history and pits a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) against a vile slave master (Leonardo DiCaprio). Q.T.'s foremost aim is simply to craft a ripping good - if profane and blood-stained - yarn and, as he has established previously, he will stop at nothing, including re-writing history, to achieve it. And yet, he shows us the chains, the scars, the hot boxes. He does not shy away from the reality even as he simultaneously revises it for narrative purposes. He has taken blaxploitation - or, more to the point, he has taken slavesploitation and brought it to the mainstream, turning it into, of all things, a Christmas Day release. Without his prototypical talky vignettes, absurd humor and flighty indulgences, it might have come across too radical. Instead, he earned it an Oscar nomination. It leaves us feeling morally queasy - partly because its morals are queasy but maybe mostly because a certain percentage of its audience looks at this revenge being dished out and knows, make-believe or not, that it is deserved.

And that brings us right along to the elephant in the room - Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's chronicling of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in the name of vengeance. The brou-ha-ha pre-release centered around the film's depiction of torture and, regardless of whether or not it was truly central to the tracking efforts, what many viewers failed to realize was how the torture scenes, only presented in the earliest portions of the film, so accurately represented our national mood in the wake of the terrible tragedy that was 9/11. Less than a week after it happened I remember a friend calling me and initiating the conversation with: "So, are you ready to enlist?" Ready to enlist?! To go off to war - which we would in less than a month's time - to start the decade-long settling of this score.

In those exacerbated Freedom Fries days, when the temperature in the room was akin to a sauna, people's thoughts about what happened and what needed to be done could get frighteningly reactionary. Level heads eventually prevailed (to an extent) but that entire event exposed us for the revenge-minded, justice-seekers we can be at our core, when pushed to the furthest edge. A common reaction to Zero Dark Thirty is an appreciation for its craft but a questioning of "why?" we need to see this, re-live this, and what do I think of myself for being so drawn in to the telling of this story?

Zero Dark Thirty fearlessly re-opens an old wound that never properly healed. When revenge (justice) is as immediate as ZDR, we feel ourselves squirm, which is perhaps why we feel safer watching two Goons duke it out from a distance, clutching a plastic cup of beer, pantomiming one-two combinations, knowing we face none of the consequences, safely tucked away behind towering plates of glass.


Andrew K. said...

That's the interesting thing about this revenge/justice thing. Everything becomes so difficult to easily define and you're never sure if what you're working for is the latter or the former.

I suppose in the case of Bigelow and Boal they're forced to remain silent on tipping their hat towards any "agenda" because the events are so fresh in memory, but the audience can already extrapolate how blurred the lines are by the time we reach that final raid.

(I'd all but forgotten that Lincoln moment.)

Candice Frederick said...

you know, I was not truly invested in much of Lincoln, especially the smaller characters like Bilbo. But you had some great things to say about it. Django and Zero Dark Thirty are also great compliments to this theme

Andy Buckle said...

What is interesting, having just read Jose, CS's and now your post, is the prevalence of the use of Zero Dark Thirty.

That film explores so many relevant motifs, and it is essentially is a revenge mission (or at least what was believed to be in-hand with justice - whether these suspicions and actions came about as the result of rash judgement, or level-headed investigation). I like your observation of how the film depicts the evolution of one to the other. You actually made me admire that film even more, and I didn't know if that was possible.

Great stuff.

Alex Withrow said...

This is a fantastic essay. And I LOVED what you said about Haywire. I really enjoyed the hell out of that movie because it doesn't make its motivations clear. The Girl is to die, and so it is. Seems like you really "got" that one, which is awesome.

Anonymous said...

"Are you going to enlist?" Thank God during 9/11 I was only 13. And Canadian.

Which reminds me that Maya was right out of high school when she got recruited. You're right that 9/11 is a wound that will never heal, and that Maya was so young to be a general in this war says so much about whether how much of this war is morally justifiable.