Did that look sweet to you?

One of the gen­res in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture that has long held a great fas­ci­na­tion for me is that of the revenge tragedy. I was intro­duced to the term in my Major British Authors I course, in our dis­cus­sion of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Mal­fi. Of course, Dr. Mick­o­laczak would be dis­ap­point­ed to learn that I did not actu­al­ly read the play when assigned (I still have not, in fact); I was already on the road to fak­ing my way through a degree in Eng­lish. Two years lat­er, when I took my oblig­a­tory Shake­speare course (my third with Dr. M.) we dealt with two more exam­ples of the genre: Ham­let and Titus Andron­i­cus, the lat­ter as vivid­ly (to put it mild­ly) brought to life in the then just-released film ver­sion direct­ed by Julie Tamor.

Anoth­er recent film that had struck a chord with me was the 2000 remake of Get Carter, star­ring Sylvester Stal­lone in the rôle (orig­i­nal­ly por­trayed by Michael Caine in the 1971 orig­i­nal) of a crime-syn­di­cate enforcer who takes time off to vis­it his fam­i­ly and make a whole slew of folks pay for his brother’s recent death. Every­one else I saw it with thought it sucked big time, but I rather liked it. (I still do, even after hav­ing seen the orig­i­nal.) I will have to see it again some­day, but it sits in my mind as a sol­id exam­ple of the genre. Some­thing often over­looked is that Rid­ley Scott’s 2000 film Glad­i­a­tor is a revenge tragedy. I myself have always thought of it as a war­rior film, which of course it is. But when placed in the tra­di­tion of oth­er vengeance-dri­ven tragedies, it seems right at home.

I just watched the recent film adap­ta­tion of the com­ic book series The Pun­ish­er, star­ring Tom Jane and direct­ed by Jonathan Hensleigh. My col­lege room­mate held a spe­cial devo­tion to this Mar­vel char­ac­ter; I believe he told me the first issue came out on the day of his birth. It fit right into my men­tal col­lec­tion of films in this genre. A hor­ri­ble wrong is com­mit­ted, a colour­ful vengeance is exact­ed. Some of the per­for­mances (a man named Tra­vol­ta?) are shame­less­ly over-baked, and most of the sup­port­ing cast are one-note com­ic-book cut-outs (which works in con­text). But then at the end, and inter­est­ing thing hap­pens. The intri­cate revenge has been enact­ed, and our pro­tag­o­nist still lives. This itself would seem to dis­qual­i­fy The Pun­ish­er from the com­pa­ny of our brief cat­a­logue of revenge tragedies above, where the hero inevitably falls him­self in the back and forth of vio­lent ret­ri­bu­tion. Then the film (and I can only assume the com­ic book series) switch­es gen­res as the hero dri­ves off toward a fran­chise.

What do you do with a char­ac­ter who has com­plet­ed a cam­paign of piti­less vengeance and still lives? One option would be to have the pro­tag­o­nist com­plete with his own hand the work his ene­mies were unable to do, as Tom Jane’s char­ac­ter indeed attempts to do in the film, the bur­den of grief too much to bear now that the pas­sion for vengeance is ful­ly expend­ed. Or the char­ac­ter could lay down the gun and move on with the busi­ness of rebuild­ing his shat­tered life into one worth liv­ing again. But that sort of thing does lit­tle to please a movie-going audi­ence, espe­cial­ly the sort of movie-goer who paid mon­ey to see The Pun­ish­er. So the char­ac­ter, hav­ing pun­ished those who wronged him, sets out to vio­lent­ly pun­ish wrong-doers gen­er­al­ly. And so the sto­ry turns from a revenge tragedy to intrigu­ing genre: the ret­ri­bu­tion fan­ta­sy. In this genre the pro­tag­o­nists, fed up with some par­tic­u­lar pro­lif­er­a­tion of unchecked injus­tice take up arms to dis­pense their own brand of (vio­lent) out­law jus­tice.

Troy Duffy’s 1999 film The Boon­dock Saints is a per­fect exam­ple of this: two work­ing-class broth­ers in Boston hear what is appar­ent­ly a divine call to hunt down evil­do­ers and per­son­al­ly dis­patch them to their escha­to­log­i­cal reck­on­ing. The movie is vio­lent, it is fun­ny, but it is also (unin­ten­tion­al­ly) unset­tling. My Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is pret­ty clear on this sort of thing, start­ing with the col­lec­tion of sacred texts we call the Bible. In Deuteron­o­my God declares, “Vengeance is mine,” imply­ing that peo­ple should just leave things to Him on this front. Much lat­er in the book, Christ exhorts his fol­low­ers, in His Ser­mon on the Mount and else­where, to turn com­plete­ly from vengeance and embrace a life of for­give­ness. Yet there remains some­thing in the human con­di­tion that draws even devout believ­ers to put these doc­trines aside with vary­ing degrees of alacrity and take up the sword or gun to mete out what they con­vince them­selves is God’s jus­tice. I sup­pose if you believe you are mere­ly an instru­ment of God, then it is still God doing the smit­ing; you just get the small task of pulling the trig­ger over and over again.

The tru­ly trou­bling part of all this is that, while the revenge tragedy remains extrav­a­gant­ly dis­tant from our every­day expe­ri­ence, the ret­ri­bu­tion fan­ta­sy is held very close to many hearts. How far is the moral dis­tance, real­ly, between the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter in Jeff Lindsay’s nov­el Dark­ly Dream­ing Dex­ter — a ser­i­al killer who only kills those whose hor­ri­ble crimes have escaped the offi­cial sys­tem of jus­tice — and the aver­age cit­i­zen express­ing enthu­si­as­tic approval of the death penal­ty? Is there any mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence between the two? Or, on a dif­fer­ent lev­el, is it unrea­son­able to say that the Unit­ed States has been liv­ing out a nation­al ret­ri­bu­tion fan­ta­sy on a grand scale these past five years, des­per­ate to make “evil­do­ers” pay for their offences against its cit­i­zen­ry? At what stage does the fan­ta­sy turn to tragedy?

1 Comment

  1. I’m guess­ing you saw that Dark­ly Dream­ing has become a tele­vi­sion series. I was going to email the minute I heard.

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