Getting Even

Scott McLemee reviews Revenge: A Short Enquiry into Retribution, a compendium of one of the human imagination's most reliable, and cross-cultural, narrative templates.

January 12, 2018

There are people in Hollywood whose livelihood depends on making it almost impossible to see a movie without knowing anything about it beforehand. And the more it costs to make, the more the audience is likely to know going in. Seasonal blockbusters are the extreme case. Often the trailers reveal not just the genre and premise of a film but most of the narrative arc, including major plot turns, along with a glimpse of the special effects, as appetizer.

Films with smaller budgets tend not to be as prechewed. Still, it is unusual to see a film knowing as little about it as I did going to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri -- after somehow avoiding advertisements and reviews, and having been exposed only to spousal word of mouth that Frances McDormand was in it, which seemed like recommendation enough. My intention here is not to review the film but to follow a tangent between it and a recent book. I will tread lightly, keeping character and plot information to a bare minimum. Consider this section break an off-ramp for anyone trying to avoid even the chance of spoilers.

The book is Revenge: A Short Enquiry Into Retribution (Reaktion Books) by Stephen Fineman, a professor emeritus in the School of Management at the University of Bath. More compendium than treatise, it offers a few pages on the literary and cinematic appeal of vengeance -- the revenge tale being one of the human imagination's most reliable, and cross-cultural, narrative templates. (For all the differences between them, Hamlet and I Spit on Your Grave both take the desire for homicidal retribution as a given.)

We'll return to Three Billboards as an instance, but we should first take a look at Fineman's account of revenge. The compulsion to avenge "threats to one's well-being, territory, pride, honor, esteem, identity, or role" is, he writes, "fixed in our biosocial make-up and triggered by strong emotions: sorrow, grief, humiliation, anger, or rage." It is a legacy of our primate origins, or perhaps more accurately a reminder of our primate essence. Like chimpanzees and macaques, our species combines social reciprocity with a capacity for long memory. We merely perfected the capacity to hold a grudge -- and to repay it with interest, using tools (weapons) more dangerous than anything available to primal chimp justice.

Hence the danger of open-ended, reciprocal violence, and the need to limit and channel the otherwise irresistible desire to get revenge. In establishing the law of talion ("an eye for an eye") the Babylonian king Hammurabi sought "to control his sprawling empire and the chaos of vigilante justice"; setting forth the code in stone inscriptions for public display gave notice that "justice was the state's prerogative, not the individual's." Once the authorities determined that damages between the two parties to a dispute were even, an escalation of the conflict risked retribution from on high.

We have, of course, close to 4,000 years of subsequent history standing as evidence that the state's claim to a monopoly on vengeance has never been comprehensive nor perfectly enforced. For one thing, no law of talion operates between states; wars, as well as coups and abortive uprisings, "often end in an orgy of revenge." Victims of workplace bullying handle it in ways that the HR department would discourage (e.g., laxative in a manager's morning tea). The internet provides an inexhaustible incitement to gutless malevolence, to which certain authority figures are not immune.

And Fineman's account of vendettas within the halls of power ends by discussing "a final forum for political revenge: the memoir." In the United States, at least, the standard was set by the dueling memoirs of Ronald Reagan's chief of staff Donald Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. But as exercises in score settling, they are bound to look genteel soon enough.

Scarcely anyone ever has a good word for vengeance, so it is surprising when the author allows that a little workplace retribution may be necessary, on occasion, to give employees "a modicum of moral recovery and an antidote to inevitable frustrations and injustices." The point could have used much more development. It probably expresses a British willingness to acknowledge class resentment -- something precluded by the American belief that if you're unhappy, it's your own damn fault.

Similarly, Fineman treats revenge in literature and on film as at least somewhat cathartic. Often enough this is at the level of pure wish fulfillment: in Death Wish, Charles Bronson not only shoots all of the miscreants who killed his family but also most of the thugs terrorizing the streets of New York City and is compelled by the police to stop, as I recall, only because he's making them look bad. In revenge narratives, the failure of the authorities to protect and defend the individual may be as oppressive as the evildoers themselves.

"Avengers," Fineman writes, "prototypically face a heinous crime that no official agency -- the law, the monarch -- is willing or able to punish. They yearn for justice and finally take matters into their own hands, but with cataclysmic results."

Here the author is discussing the heroes of Renaissance revenge dramas; hence reference to the monarch. But the sense that there's something rotten in Denmark, so to speak, is typically foregrounded in revenge films as well. (It's why the LAPD keeps taking Clint Eastwood's badge away, for example.) Arguably the motif of ineffective and/or corrupted authority functions in the narrative as something other than a critique of authority. Justice is to vengeance as the superego is to the id -- and the impossibility of justice gives the audience permission for full vicarious participation in the avenger's violence.

In Three Billboards, the character played by McDormand has lost her daughter to an exceptionally brutal rape and murder. Her grief has turned to rage, given the lack of any progress by the police of Ebbing, Mo., in finding the killer. Furthermore, the department contains at least one cop accused of torturing someone in custody, and its relationship with the town's African-American community is one of mutual hostility.

Within its first 15 or 20 minutes, then, we have most of the elements for a revenge narrative. I think it is fair to complain that the Black Lives Matter aspect of the story ultimately proves no more than a way of compounding the audience's sympathy for the grieving mother by presenting the authorities as illegitimate. Hostilities emerge or intensify. There are acts of violence and retribution, which are serious though not fatal. In due course, there appears at least one character -- possibly two -- who might well deserve any punishment McDormand would care to inflict.

And the audience, or most of it, would be with her if she did. At the same time, the film obliges the viewer to see how the urge toward revenge tends to rationalize itself, come what may. It is the rare revenge film that is really about justice, and about how elusive it can be.

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