The following article contains heavy spoilers for all the films, video games, and books that will be talked about.
Revenge. Wouldn’t we love to see it?
The bad guy gets obliterated by the good guy for what he has done, now roll the credits and walk out of the theatre with that satisfied feeling in your chest. Well, there is a lot more that goes beyond just the “You’re going to pay for it, just you wait” nature of revenge, and you will see that down below.
Here we will be taking a look at films, video games, and a book that features revenge, and we will see what exactly makes them so good, complex and thought-provoking.
I will admit to a certain horrible fault; I am absolutely blinded by the portrayal of revenge in the movies. The extravagance of it, the glamour of it, the drama of it. Revenge isn’t just “a little payback”, it’s a full-blown theatrical performance. I suppose the campiness is what makes it all the more exciting, n’est-ce pas?
1. Gone Girl, 2014
This story is grounded in calculated lies and careful manipulation, but it is done with such brilliance that I can’t help but admire it.
Everything is rosy at the beginning of a relationship. Smiles, laughter and sophistication are generously displayed. You keep the bitter, dark parts of yourself hidden to entice the other person. It’s an act; you’re Bluebeard hidden behind the mask of Prince Charming. This was Amy and Nick Dunne’s relationship. This was love. And then they got married.
Amy and Nick weren’t husband and wife despite exchanging vows at the altar. They were actors and their marriage was a performance. Amy Dunne morphed herself to fit her husband’s image of a Cool Girl. Because that’s what men want; a hot girl, a fun girl, a Cool Girl. A Cool Girl devours junk food but doesn’t go a size up. A Cool Girl doesn’t complain. A Cool Girl changes herself to keep the guy infatuated with her. In exchange, Amy got the man of her dreams — with her; Nick was better, smarter, sharper than most other guys. It was a mutually beneficial sort of love because they were both happy. And doesn’t happiness make the pretence worth it? Otherwise, what’s the point of being together if you’re not happy?
But oh! Nick was careless and his mask began to slip. Amy disliked this new person she saw. Where was the suave, polished man she agreed to marry?
This begs the question of whether love is really unconditional? Would you stay with someone after seeing their flaws? After seeing their indolence, or selfishness, or their inability to view you as nothing more than an object? No! Amy Dunne loved Nick, but with terms and conditions applied.
And then Amy caught Nick cheating with a new Cool Girl.
She gave him the world and this is how he repays her. Oh no, no, no. That won’t do. Nick Dunne isn’t going to win. Nick Dunne is going to pay.
So, like any sensible person, Amy orchestrates her own murder with the blame falling on Nick. Oh, how Amy turned the tables. This cunning, crafty woman fabricated a violent crime scene in her own home, planting objects of suspicion on Nick. She keeps a diary with false entries about Nick, steals a pregnant neighbour’s pee, hits herself with a hammer and slits a man’s throat all to cement her story and paint herself as the damsel in distress.
Finally, she comes back to Nick, after he manipulated her into believing he still loved her. But she isn’t quite done with her deceptive, cheating husband just yet. She inseminates herself in order to get pregnant and ropes Nick into another 18 years of being together; she knows Nick wouldn’t leave his unborn child. Checkmate, Nick. Amy wins.
2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 2007
Music and murders, what a surprising yet oddly compatible combination.
Benjamin Barker’s villain origin story starts like this: he was a barber who had been exiled to Australia after the nasty Judge Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy. More than a decade later, Barker returns to London with a thirst for revenge, a hunger for vengeance and a much more interesting haircut. He goes back to his old barber’s shop on Fleet Street, above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop, as Sweeney Todd.
Mrs. Lovett, infatuated with Todd, informs him that Lucy had killed herself years ago. Their daughter, Johanna, is under the care of Judge Turpin and who Turpin intended to marry. There is an unfortunate encounter between Turpin and Todd that leaves Turpin renouncing Todd’s service. That’s when things really start to get wicked.
Todd declares revenge on the whole world, with a new desire to kill as many people as he possibly can while nefarious Mrs. Lovett volunteers to bake his victims into her pies because there’s no wastage in this household, no ma’am.
Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are an unholy trinity that have yet to disappoint me in the Hollywood dark arts. Sweeney Todd was no exception with its fascinating musical numbers and enchanting storyline. I first watched this movie when I was 6, which partially explains my slightly-unhealthy obsession with Tim Burton movies and why I avoid meat pies like the plague.
3. Ocean’s 8, 2018
I am going to resent you if you have not watched this masterpiece. There have been dozens of heist movies but none can compare to the style and elegance of Ocean’s 8. This movie is based on the Ocean’s trilogy (I’m going to come clean and say that I have not watched the others as they feature neither the Met Gala nor an exquisite sense of fashion).
The story follows Debbie Ocean, a professional thief, who has just been released from prison and who had spent her waking days in jail plotting her next heist. She recruits a team of female accomplices with her target being The Toussaint — a 150-million-dollar diamond necklace. Daphne Kluger, a celebrity, was unknowingly roped into this heist after convincing her to flaunt the necklace on her abnormally-beautiful neck.
Using a pinch of manipulation here and there, Debbie manages to lead Daphne into inviting Claude Becker as her date. Claude Becker was the betrayer who landed Debbie in jail so, of course, it’s payback time. During the Met Gala, the biggest and most exclusive social event of the year, the team steals The Toussaint while replacing it with a worthless replica. Debbie gets her revenge by planting evidence all over Claude Becker, framing him and sending him to prison in the process.
It really is like killing two birds with one stone, if you think about it. This movie gives fashion, faux fur and fierceness. And remember, well-behaved women seldom make history so steal away!
Let’s talk about revenge in video games. The time you spend getting absorbed in the virtual world and the story leaves so much room for interpretation as video games explore all sorts of genres under the sun. Today, we will be specifically dissecting the theme of revenge which is sure to provide an insightful view.
1. NieR Replicant, 2021
“There’s always another story. There’s more than meets the eye.”
– W.H. Auden
No other games better encapsulate this adage than the video game series, NieR, created by the eccentric Japanese video game director, Yoko Taro.
In the video game, NieR Replicant, the game opens with a deceptively simple and common premise. We follow the journey of a young boy, Nier, as he’s living humbly with his sister, Yonah, in a small quaint village. Unfortunately, things started to take a turn for the worse when a deadly disease, ominously called The Black Scrawl, started spreading around like wildfire. Various people have been getting infected left and right. As a result, multiple people have fallen victim to the unknown illness, including Yonah. Desperate to save the only person he considers family, Nier frantically tries to save his sister and find a cure for her. Nier now sets out on a race against time before the disease can claim the lives of all, including his dear sister.
The world of NieR is also infested with the manifestation of ethereal, shadow monsters aptly called Shades. No one knows where these monsters came about, other than the fact that they are hostile and aggressive creatures that seemingly terrorise the inhabitants living in the world of NieR for no apparent reason. The fact that the player, and inhabitants of the world, can’t seem to communicate with the Shades only adds more mystery to the puzzling origins behind these beasts.
As the journey progresses and despite the numerous extermination of various Shades, things still seem bleak as the party still has yet to discover any magical cure to Yonah’s declining malady. Out of nowhere, Nier’s village is suddenly assaulted by an enormous Shade. The conflict ends with the abrupt appearance of the leader of the Shades, the Shadowlord, seizing Yonah away as the party is forced to watch it happen.
At this point, the story begins to transform into one of vengeance as we are introduced to the game’s ultimate “big bad.” To illustrate this shift, the game also jumps five years forward, with the gang still desperately searching for clues to rescue Yonah from the Shadowlord. Eventually, Nier and the others come to defeat five powerful Shades to assemble a key that would hopefully open their path to the Shadowlord. Finally, the end seems to be near after countless sacrifices and struggles along the way. The team makes it to the Shadowlord, and an epic battle ensues, ending triumphantly in the decisive victory of Nier and the tearful reunion of the siblings. All’s well that ends well, right? Well… not exactly.
Instead of letting the story end up on a bittersweet but generic note, Yoko Taro decides to teach us a personal lesson in the moral implications of our actions. It is eventually revealed that the single-minded actions of Nier and his allies may have doomed the entirety of humanity forever, after all.
Chances of mankind’s survival? Zilch.
Through subsequent playthroughs, we begin to learn that some Shades still retain some form of sapience. Indeed, they are not hostile because they are evil. Rather, they are driven by their own real motivations to protect their loved ones from their enemies — Nier and us, the players. Though they may have appeared demon-like on the exterior, inside, they were humans just like the rest of NiER’s inhabitants.
It is not often that you see such layered and nuanced forms of storytelling in a video game. What seemingly appeared to be a run-of-the-mill revenge tale on the surface turned out to be something so much deeper. The NieR series truly epitomises the idea that, like most things in life, nothing is ever truly black or white; everyone is driven by a reason to do what they do, but unfortunately this is often overlooked by the masses.
2. The Last of Us Part II, 2020
Now let’s take a look at the cycle of revenge and how it consumes a person’s life entirely to the point of no return in The Last of Us Part II.
After losing her father in a shootout at the hospital, Abby journeys to Jacksonville with her group of friends of the same faction to search for the man who killed her father. Once she got Joel trapped in a cabin, rage filled her looking at the very man with her father’s blood on his hands. As a final act of closure, she exacts her revenge on Joel by torturing him to a bloody death. An eye for an eye.
Ellie, Joel’s counterpart and daughter-figure, arrives at the cabin a little too late. She’s pinned down to the floor by Abby’s team, having no choice but to watch Joel’s life drain before her eyes. As a final measure, Abby knocks Ellie out before leaving the cabin and Jacksonville.
Once Ellie gains consciousness, the shadow of revenge has already begun to wrap itself around Ellie’s mind. She travels to the now desolate and overgrown Seattle, Washington to search for Abby using clues she picks up along the way. There is only one thing on her mind, and that is killing Abby.
Ellie wants to see it through to the end, to avenge Joel’s death no matter what. No matter if she loses her own friends along the way, if her sanity is slowly unfurling from her, or if she completely abandons her virtues by killing everyone and everything in her path; she has to get to Abby. Abby has completely overtaken her mind; revenge filling every crevice of her, gripping her entire existence.
While Abby is recovering from the grip that revenge has had on her, Ellie’s cycle just began. But unlike Abby, during the final fight with Abby at the end of the game, Ellie breaks through the wall and realises that killing her won’t solve anything. Abby’s death won’t bring Joel back. As she pins Abby down underwater by her throat, Ellie gets a flashback of Joel in peace, and she remembers how this isn’t what he would have wanted, how much all of this has changed her into this violent and unforgiving person.
In a final act to forgive Abby and to be at peace with Joel’s death, she lets go of Abby. The cycle is now broken, leaving the both of them to find what’s next, to find peace in their own ways.
In a similar vein, the novel At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, also looks into the revenge of someone’s death and the way it takes space inside a person’s psyche, but this time with a darker outcome.
Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier sent to fight at the Western Front in France, thinks about what he has done to his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop. Mademba was shelled by the enemy on the other side, and now he lays down beside Alfa in a sheltered space, his stomach ripped open and his guts splattered all around him. He begs Alfa to slit his throat so he can be finished, so misery can finally let him go. Alfa refuses, thinking that he cannot possibly take Mademba’s life as it is not his job to do so. Mademba’s life slowly and painfully exits him through his moans of pain and begs.
Alfa, filled with regret over what he should have done on the night of Mademba’s death, now wakes up every morning in the trenches with one thing on his mind: to kill the enemy one by one with a final slit of the throat at the end as a final act of humanity towards Mademba more than anyone. After pulling an enemy from the other side to a sheltered place, Alfa begins to tie them up, cut their stomach open and watch their insides pour out, and after seeing the pleading look in their blue eyes, he would slit their throat silently. As a tangible object to ground him, he would bring back the enemy’s hands to his place. His friends in the trenches initially commended him upon seeing him come back late at night bringing a trophy.
Alfa’s respect from them soon dwindled once he brought back his seventh severed hand. Everyone thought him to be a demm, a devourer of souls. By his commander’s order, Alfa was sent to The Rear to rest. There, Alfa’s body and mind slowly gets overtaken by something. His act of revenge in the front has left space for this otherness to take hold of him. Is he turning into a demm, just like what they said? Has he given way to Mademba, his more-than-brother’s soul to take over him, to be one in life and in death? Or perhaps it is the madness from all the death and revenge that has dissolved him entirely?
The element of revenge in all the different types of media out there, as much as it is entertaining to watch and read, also serves as food for thought. Just how far is too far? Would we do the same thing in their shoes, and where will it take us? It is a point to ponder indeed.
By: Natasha, Asareel & Yun Jing