Revenge is a popular theme in film, and it’s also a popular title. I feel like every year I see a new one: the Austrian film Revanche, the French film Revenge, the TV show Revenge. It must be hard to keep all of these straight if you love watching people get their just desserts. Anyway, it’s hard to know what to make of Revenge, I mean the Norwegian one. Its Norwegian title is Hevn, if you need some help with Googling it. Aside from some on-the-nose music choices, it’s a well-crafted, slow-burning thriller. The acting is solid, and the setting of a riverside town in a rustic Norwegian fjord ensures that every shot is desktop-background-worthy. Yet some storytelling choices are so gross and hard to know what to make of that, they cast a pall on the rest of the experience.
As the film begins, a woman who says her name is Andrea (Siren Jǿrgensen) arrives at a luxury hotel. She tells the manager that she’s a writer for the magazine “TravelBest,” but we can tell off the bat that something else is going on. With her fake story, she’s able to get an audience with hotel owner Morten (Frode Winther) on her first night in town—I guess Norwegian people in small villages tend to be very trusting? We see her pull a knife out of her bag, but when she sees that Morten has a wife and toddler, she hatches a plan to infiltrate Morten’s life and destroy him via his closest relationships.
“…hatches a plan to infiltrate Morten’s life and destroy him via his closest relationships.”
The “revenge” genre usually exists within two poles: the populist action movie and the more nuanced intellectual thriller. At the former—Commando, The Hills Have Eyes, John Wick—we are there to watch our heroes righteously cave in skulls. We know that the situation is immoral, but it’s also ridiculous. Nobody who enjoyed John Wick believes that you should shoot up a club if a Russian gangster kills your puppy (hopefully). At the latter pole—Memento, Blue Ruin, Munich—things are a little more grounded, and the audience is expected to examine their emotional response to the situation. Maybe, even if you feel like it, your family’s death at the hands of bad people doesn’t give you license to go on a totally badass killing spree.
Neither of these poles is inherently better than the other, but when you start to get to the middle—Death Wish, Law Abiding Citizen, Death Sentence—you can run into trouble, morally and in terms of what the audience wants. You might get people thinking, “I paid good money to see gruesome violence, stop trying to make me cry!” Or by putting on airs of moral gravity and social commentary while really telling a straightforward story of righteous fury, you convince the audience that “yeahh, I want to kill the bad guys, fuuuuuuckkk it’s so intense” is a “deep” point of view. Which works for emotional adolescents, but isn’t healthy.
“…deflated into a moral binary that’s ludicrous…”
That’s all a way of saying that Revenge, even though it’s a revenge movie, is definitely morally culpable for the story it’s telling. It appears to fall closer to the second pole: there is no killing spree, no extreme bloodshed, no Oldboy hallway fight. Yet the whole movie consists of “Andrea” making repellent choices that don’t result in consequences for herself or innocent people. Without getting too specific, it’s a “rape revenge” story—Andrea is trying to hurt Morten because he assaulted someone close to her. However, her actions throughout the movie intentionally put several other women and teenage girls in harm’s way—it’s a complicated, perverse, hypocritical situation, and the movie knows it.
Yet the movie doesn’t give Andrea anything in the way of comeuppance. None of the other women are significantly harmed. All of her schemes go exactly according to plan. By the final showdown, a sick story with the potential to be uniquely disturbing has deflated into a moral binary that’s ludicrous after everything we’ve seen before.
Still, those fjords! If nothing else, Revenge does what its main character pretends to—it’s a great tourism ad for Norway. I enjoyed watching it, but the ending left me confused. It’s the first time I can remember being grossed out by the absence of an event, not the event itself.
Revenge (2015) Directed by Kjersti Steinsbǿ. Written by Kjersti Steinsbǿ and Ingvar Ambjǿrnsen. With Siren Jǿrgensen, Frode Winther, Anders Baasmo Christiansen.
6 out of 10 stars