You better watch out. Better not cry, sucker. Because this month we’re taking a look at seven examples of cinematic revenge — the bloodier, the better.
Part 5: Rolling Thunder
When is a revenge film not a revenge film? The basic template of a revenge film asks that we feel some kind of catharsis or justification in regards to the bloody vengeance our protagonist is doling out. Though there’s some semblance of that in Rolling Thunder, the motivations and reasoning that drive our main character, Major Charles Rane (William Devane), get at something much darker than good ol’ fashioned revenge.
Rane and his fellow soliders have just returned from being POWs in Vietnam where they were tortured daily. While Rane’s fellow soldier Johnny Vohden (a ghostly Tommy Lee Jones) immediately feels out of place in this world, Rane seems to be able to at least put on a facade of normalcy. While he was captured and presumed dead, his wife has found love in the arms of local police officer Cliff, and Rane’s young son doesn’t even remember his father. Rane surprisingly takes this all in stride, agreeing to sleep out in the workshed and never once becoming enraged about anything.
It’s here that we start to see how permanently damaged Rane is. He refits the shed to resemble the cell he was trapped in, he gets Cliff to reenact one of the torture methods the Vietcong would subject him to, and he’s just all around empty. He seems to make a case for loving his son (after getting Cliff to torture him, he tells Cliff not to call his son a runt), but there’s almost no passion in anything Rane does.
This all comes to a head when the town presents him with a collection of silver dollars, and a local gang of ruffians decide they want to rob Rane. During their interrogation, Rane flashes back to his time as a POW and refuses to give anything but his name, rank, and serial number. This causes the baddies to shove his hand into a garbage disposal and eventually kill Rane’s wife and son. They attempt to kill Rane but fail. Revenge plot initiated.
But, there’s something much more devastating going on in Rolling Thunder than just the loss of Rane’s family. Like I said, Rane never gets worked up or emotional about anything. At one point, he refers to the time before he was captured as “back when I was alive.” He’s admits that something has been pulled out of him and can never be restored. The murder of his wife and son are less a cause for revenge and more an excuse to go back to war.
This is doubly illustrated with Johnny’s character. Aimless and unable to connect with his boring family, Johnny doesn’t question Rane for a second when Rane comes to tell him that he’s found the men responsible for the death of his family. Johnny immediately responds with a perfunctory, “I’ll get my gear.” When Rane and Johnny make their way to the whorehouse where the gang is holed up, you can see a gleeful smile light up on Johnny’s face. Where Rane is someone who accepts the monster he’s become in an almost robotic fashion, Johnny delights in getting to return to the violence that once was part of his daily routine. It’s twisted, disturbing stuff.
It’s also a nihilistic blast. The final shootout in the whorehouse is brutal but grimly entertaining. People take shotgun blasts to the chest and stomach left and right, and in between the stone-faced determinism of Rane is Johnny whooping with joy as he guns down people effortlessly. Not to mention that Rane’s signature weapon is his prosthetic hook hand which he sharpens to a point. Brilliant.
There’s some other stuff in Rolling Thunder that feels out of place (a romantic foil for Rane that exists only to drive home how damned he is), but there’s no other revenge film I can drum up that is as heartless as this. Thanks to Paul Schrader’s macho script and some old school tough guy acting from Devane, the movie never becomes so glum to the point of being maudlin, but it can be a rough ride for some to get through. For callous bastards that are dead inside, Rolling Thunder is a ruthless classic.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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