Posted on Tuesday, June 15th, 2021 by
(Welcome to, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week, we look six dishes best served cold…that’s right, we’re talking the best revenge movies you’ve never seen!)
Revenge movies never go out of style. Even now, in a year where films are only just starting to trickle back into theaters, revenge stands front and center. From Spiral to Wrath of Man, theaters in 2021 are already slathering the silver screen with vengeance-fueled entertainment. Nature is healing.
When it comes right down to it, revenge is a theme that’s present in an enormous percentage of the movies we watch and love. It’s very often the motivation behind action films (Death Wish, 1974; John Wick, 2014), westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968; The Revenant, 2015), and even horror movies (The Last House on the Left, 1972; Friday the 13th, 1980), but its icy tendrils don’t stop there. Think comedies (9 to 5, 1980), sci-fi epics (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982), prestige dramas (In the Bedroom, 2001), and so many more.
Of course, you not only recognize all of those mentioned but are probably already a fan, so let’s get to the point of this column and recommend some far lesser known films that fit the bill. Keep reading for a look at six of the best revenge movies you’ve probably never seen.
The Severed Arm (1973)
Six friends go spelunking, and if the movies have taught us anything it’s that these friends are doomed. Doomed! As expected, a cave-in traps the men underground, terrified, desperate for rescue, and increasingly hungry. As the days pass, though, it’s clear that no help is coming – so they draw straws to seem whose arm they’re all going to eat first. Ted is the unlucky one, but no sooner have they held him down and severed his arm that rescuers pop through the wall, saving all of their lives. The friends make up a quick lie that Ted lost his arm in the cave-in, but five years later someone is offing the two-armed survivors in gruesome fashion.
This early ’70s gem is admittedly maligned by many, but my column answers only to me – and The Severed Arm is a terrific slice of revenge cinema. Part mystery, part slasher, part The Big Chill with an axe-wielding maniac, Tom Alderman’s second (and last) feature as director goes a bit light on the gore, and while that seems in contrast with the title and marketing, it’s far from a deal-breaker. There’s still a darkness here as we see friendships crumble and suspicions mount to a delightfully grim ending that feels every bit like an inspiration for the likes of Saw (2004).
With no real gore on display, the film is forced to hold attention in other ways, and a big one here is atmosphere, style, and tone. It predates Bob Clark’s Black Christmas by a year, but while that masterpiece marks the true birth of the slasher genre, The Severed Arm feels like a trial run. A killer’s POV, an unknown murderer, and a synth score (of sorts) all fit the subgenre, and even if Alderman’s directorial eye is far shakier than Clark’s, the end result is a still a movie that should appeal to slasher fans. The mystery unfolds slowly, but hanging out with these guys as they deal with past choices and their present predicament is good fun.
The Severed Arm is currently available to stream on Amazon.
Remember My Name (1978)
Neil is a happily married man living the good life in California, but it threatens to all come crashing down when a woman named Robin is released from prison. She arrives in town and quickly establishes a residence, secures a job, and sets about starting her new life – which includes stalking Neil and his wife Barbara. Peering in windows graduates to breaking and entering, and as the truth behind her actions come to light Barbara becomes unsure who’s the bigger threat – Robin or her own husband.
Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson do good work as the married couple in distress, and Perkins in particular is highly appealing as a man who earns viewer empathy before threatening to lose it all beneath an avalanche of secrets and lies. Supporting players find life in the likes of Moses Gunn, Jeff Goldblum, and Alfre Woodard, but it’s Geraldine Chaplin who steals the film as Emily. Flashes of rage and madness tease a spiritual ancestor to Fatal Attraction (1987), but Emily’s motivation runs far deeper than a mere violent jealousy.
Alan Rudolph writes and directs while Robert Altman produces, and their cachet along with this cast makes it a mystery as to why Remember My Name has never been released to disc. It’s a powerful dramatic thriller that plays with viewer expectations by shifting allegiances and understanding, and while its ending doesn’t go the expected route, it still delivers a satisfying revenge on the person who deserves it. Even if you don’t dig its wrap-up, though, you won’t be left unaffected by Chaplin’s performance.
Remember My Name is currently unavailable to stream.
The Page Turner (2006)
Children don’t always share their parents’ dreams for them, but young Mélanie is an exception. They want her to excel as a concert pianist, and she wants that for herself as well, but when the audition of her young life is ruined by a selfish woman, it sets in motion a long game with only one possible ending – revenge!
Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. Like Remember My Name above, this French thriller doesn’t erupt into bloody madness in its third act and instead finds a quietly chilling satisfaction. It’s in many ways more powerful and lasting, and while it may not tick the same cathartic boxes as brutal violence, it’s with good reason – the revenge that Mélanie seeks is both somewhat understandable and well beyond reason. The film instead speaks to the weight we put on past interactions and events, sometimes to the detriment of the present and future.
Catherine Frot plays Ariane, the woman whose careless act of distraction costs young Melanie a placement at an exclusive music academy, and she’s a woman with her own concerns, self-doubts, and issues. It’s Déborah François’s turn as Melanie, though, that captivates and disturbs. We know she’s up to something (or is she?), but it’s not clear until the very end what that might be. François creates a woman shielded behind intentional deception, and watching her maneuver each moment is a delight knowing that she’s masterfully waiting for just the right situation.
The Page Turner is currently unavailable to stream.
Sanjay had everything – a successful business, the love of a fantastic woman, and a full head of hair – but all of it disappears after a brutal act of violence. Years later, he’s a man haunted by a past he can’t recall. His memory only extends to the past 15 minutes, and he has to keep reminding himself that he’s on a mission of revenge against the man who killed the woman he loved and left him with brain damage. Tattoos adorn his body with reminders and names, Polaroid photos of people living and dead line his walls, and one word burns in his soul. Ghajini!
I can hear you now. “Rob,” you say, “isn’t this Christopher Nolan’s Memento?” And to that I say, it absolutely is, unnamed reader, it absolutely is. Ghajini is a very loose remake of Nolan’s second feature film, but it takes some, uh, liberties with its retelling. At 186 minutes it actually takes more than a few of them by adding in multiple music numbers, extended flashbacks that layer in some delightfully cheesy romance, and some bone-crunching beat-downs courtesy of a very ripped Aamir Khan.
While it lacks the nuance, cruel weight, and pitch perfect ending of Memento, A.R. Murugadoss’ Ghajini still delivers more than a few thrills of its own. Khan is a big part of that as the Indian superstar flexes and mourns in equal measure, managing moments both menacing and thoughtful along his road to revenge. The action is a blend of the impactful and the silly (physics-wise), but it’s never less than entertaining. The film is an investment with that running time, obviously, but if you know what you’re getting with Indian cinema, then you know what to expect here, including song and dance breaks. Christopher Nolan could never.
Ghajini is currently unavailable to stream.
The Dressmaker (2015)
Tilly is an acclaimed designer of dresses in 1950s Australia, but she leaves city life and high society behind and returns to her tiny home “town” in the rural country. She had been ostracized and booted out of Dungatar as a child after the death of a local bully, and she’s returned for both the truth on the incident and to check in on her ailing mother. Her return opens up old wounds and older secrets, and Tilly quickly finds herself at odds with both the past and the townspeople themselves. She’ll be leaving again soon, and she’ll be doing so in style.
Anyone left jonesing for more Kate Winslet now that Mare of Easttown has ended should seek out this underseen gem immediately. Hell, The Dressmaker should be on your watchlist even if you didn’t watch that HBO series – because it is a ridiculously entertaining and immensely satisfying film. Winslet is always brilliant and continues that trend here as a woman who escaped the petty pull of small-town neighbors once before and looks forward to doing it again. Her outfits are on point, and director/co-writer Jocelyn Moorhouse does fantastic work in setting their beauty against the drab and dry surroundings.
The film is a rarity in that it pairs a fairly substantial death toll with some big laughs, and all of it works to build a smartly constructed tale of vengeance. Betrayals big and small, tragedies both accidental and intentional, and a terrific supporting cast (including Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, and Judy Davis) add to the experience, and it’s wrapped up in a glorious final act of retribution that will leave you smiling (if not cheering outright). Trust me, while the title and marketing may have suggested an indie drama, The Dressmaker is big, colorful, fiery entertainment.
The Dressmaker is currently available to stream on Amazon and elsewhere.
Riders of Justice (2021, Denmark)
Life is a series of conscious choice and coincidence, and the trick is knowing which is to blame (or credit) and any given moment. Markus learns this the hard way when he’s recalled from military duty having learned that his wife has died in a train accident. He’s introduced to the chain of events leading up to her death ending with a disturbing revelation – the train’s derailment was no accident.
A pair of recently fired overthinkers point Markus towards a white supremacist group as being the ones responsible, and soon the angry soldier is racking up a body count in pursuit of the one behind the incident. Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen pairs some exciting action sequences with warmth, humor, and a thought-provoking look at the unseen mechanics of life. It’s at times compelling and fascinating while never losing focus as an engaging and entertaining thriller. As revenge pictures go, Riders of Justice arrives at an unusually fresh conclusion.
While many viewers are still catching up with Mads Mikkelsen’s terrific lead performance in last year’s Another Round, he’s already delivered another memorable turn in this revenge-powered tale exploring the interconnected nature of life, death, and everything in-between. His Markus is a man driven by grief, regret, and rage, and his journey towards the truth sees him don blinders to his teenage daughter’s own feelings, which in turn complicates things further. He’s in bad-ass mode throughout, making the moments where he cracks all the more powerful.
Riders of Justice is currently available to stream on Amazon and elsewhere.
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