It’s no slight against Coralie Fargeat’s vivid, vicious Revenge — a film that will set midnight movie devotees cheering for generations — that you’ve probably seen every scene in it before, in some form or another. Here’s the beautiful young woman, the lover of a wealthy criminal, parading around the pool as the henchmen and the camera leer. Here she’s pawed at by a subordinate of that criminal, and then raped. Here she is fleeing those men who suddenly, all at once, see her not as a prize but as a problem, a loose end that could expose their sins. And here she is left for dead, caked in blood, in a desert wasteland, vowing just what that title promises. Her mission: to hunt the bastards down, one by one. “I’m not sure splitting up is a good idea,” one of the guys says, deep into the film, after the slaughter has started. Just like you, he’s seen this story.
Maybe, quite reasonably, you don’t want to see that again. The cathartic release of the rape-revenge thriller, after all, depends upon watching yet another rape. Here, it’s the one assault that mostly occurs offscreen, though the buildup is drawn out, cruelly playful, tense in a way that knots the stomach and lashes the conscience. Jen (Matilda Lutz) gets pressed up against a sliding-glass door by one of her boyfriend’s hunting buddies, drawing the attention of another of the dudes, who bangs open the bedroom door and regards them. Jen — and the rest of us — wonder: Will he save her? Will he join in? The camera follows him, then, through this posh hunting lodge that will later be as blood-soaked as the elevators of the Overlook Hotel. Twice, three times, I thought he had come to a decision, that he was about to take definitive action. And then, when he finally does make his move, a strangled yawp leapt from my throat, neither laugh nor cry but some sad coyote combination thereof. The sequence is harrowing, as it should be, serious about the moral weight of the crime. But Fargeat also dares to aim for some pointed, suspenseful comedy, crafting a satiric dramatization of the way men have long tuned out the truth about the prevalence of sexual assault.
But you’ve never seen these scenes through the eyes of writer-director Fargeat, who here is making an uncommonly shrewd, sadistic and artful debut. Again and again, Revenge invigorates and interrogates the familiar. Jen is pants-less throughout the film, stalking her quarry in panties and a sports bra, her exposed body increasingly grimed over. Jen hardens throughout the film, and the camera’s regard of her does, too: In the early scenes, before the rape, the star of the film seems to be Lutz’s ass rather than Lutz herself — there’s more gratuitous flashes of bikini bottoms than you might see in a weekend of mid-’90s MTV spring break coverage. But Fargeat’s emphasis is on the way these men see Jen, objectify her, come to believe her existence truly is all about their pleasure.
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Later, though, they will be the prey. For one long, queasy, hilarious stretch of the film, Jen hunts the hunters while grievously wounded, a stalk of tree jutting from her abdomen. It rises beneath her T-shirt like the erections beneath the togas of the men of Athens in a production of Lysistrata, a parody of masculine hardness. In the most pivotal, unforgettable scene, Jen holes up in a cave to engage in a ritual you know from almost every movie ever made about violent heroism: She has to patch herself up. It’s grisly, of course, but also inspired, a bravura bit of surgery involving a beer can and way too much peyote. Jen cuts into herself, yanks out that foreign object and studies the hole left behind. She cauterizes the wound, brands herself, loses herself in pain and dreams, and emerges — after a dizzy series of drug-fueled shocks and fake-outs — as someone new, a bathed-in-blood rebirth as potent as the one at the center of Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Soon after, Fargeat gives her barefoot hero a true hero’s pose: Jen stands in the desert dawn, studying the horizon through stolen binoculars, as the camera circles her, rising from toes to face. The same body that, an hour before, we saw through a parodic male gaze now is revealed as entirely hers — and the certain source of those men’s demise.
Fargeat is thoughtful about the elements of her genre, flagrant in her inversions of them but also ferocious in her commitment to them. She has an eye for landscape, a love of light — relish the infernal glare of the dust whenever a driver here hits the brakes at night — and an all-too-rare mastery of geography in an action scene. The climax involves a chase through a mini-maze in the hunting lodge, the floor and walls slicker and redder each time the chasers pass through; viewers will always know precisely where the characters are in relation to one another, except for when the director doesn’t want us to.
In recent years, the nonsense term “elevated” has been attached, sometimes, to genre fare that is reputed to offer aesthetes a richer, more reputable experience than they might expect. A Quiet Place or Get Out, according to this thinking, are “elevated” horror films — horror movies acceptable for people who consider themselves elevated above horror movies. Revenge will chase the elevated crowd right out of the theater: This is wicked pulp, replete with geysers of blood. Deaths are protracted, disgusting, as gratuitous as they are curiously invigorating. One sequence involving a villain fishing glass from a gash in his foot had me balled up in my seat, covering my eyes, and then roaring with laughter just a moment later, when he tries to drive to safety. Fargeat cuts to the gas pedal, showing how every time he stomps on it, his foot spurts a gob of blood.
That might sound like a cheap gag, a debasing opportunity to savor violence or to laugh at human suffering. It is all that, of course, but it’s achieved with mastery. As for the morality of revenge, or Revenge, all I can say is this: I’d rather see nasty, brutish killing on the screen than the sanitized and bloodless variety of our PG-13s, which make the perverse promise to audiences that slaughter is jolly good fun. Here, it’s an obscenity, a wrenching and transformative act that wrecks the hero rather than just the thing that heroes do.