When Nicolas Cage scowls on the front cover of a blu-ray in a film called Vengeance, alongside the tag line “Beyond Good and Evil is Justice,” one downsizes expectations that this may prove another Leaving Las Vegas, Bringing Out the Dead, or even Valley Girl. After seeing Cage scowl on the blu-ray cover of Rage, a recent mostly seedy, banal Taken variation, one learns. I have obediently seen every one of the 412 films Cage has made and released in the last two and a half years, and I can lay out the good ones.
The Trust, a nasty, efficient black comedy thriller where he gets to be a bit zany and unhinged, is nifty. His two Paul Schrader films, the molested-by-producers The Dying of the Light and the not-molested-by-producers Dog Eat Dog, are humpback, blemished films, but worth seeing. Army of One, a broad comedy about that guy who went to Afghanistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, isn’t really good but tries. After that, you’re on your own.
So when Vengeance was dumped by FilmRise, its distributor, on Video On Demand with a DVD-R and Blu-Ray-R On-Demand release only available through Amazon, I feared the worst and all the same ordered my Blu-Ray-R immediately. With my post IRS-problems Cage collection complete, I couldn’t give up just because I had to pay full freight ($24.95!) to get my grubby little fingers on the latest Cage obscurity.
While I seem to be flying in the face of indifference-at-best and outright hostility at worst from other early reviews, I am here not to bury Vengeance but to praise it. I should start by pointing out the title is actually Vengeance: a Love Story, a stranger title, and then point out that most unexpected is that the film is based on a Joyce Carol Oates novella, Rape: A Love Story, an even better title that understandably wasn’t used for the film.
The film isn’t a representative violence-drenched straight-to-video action revenge flick. It is an ensemble piece detailing the brutal assault of a licentious widow (Anna Hutchison) by some local reprobates, witnessed by her 12-year old daughter. The unbearably devoted mother of two of the rapists (played by a reemergent Charlene Tilton, from Dallas), who will broach no censure of her skeevy offspring, forces their more questioning father to put up their house to secure the services of a smooth, venal Defense Attorney played by Don Johnson, who is likely to make mincemeat of the single-minded but pedestrian prosecutor played by Kara Flowers. Throw into the mix Deborah Karah Unger as Hutchinson’s mom, who can’t get along with her, or anyone, really, and Cage as a hero cop and widower who is the first on the crime scene and won’t stand for Johnson’s manipulations, and you have an interestingly dense and developed milieu, no doubt largely due to Oates’ source material.
The dialogue is at times a bit stronger and character-based than found in the usual recent Cage Video on Demand release. One of the rapists has an amusing exchange where he asks for an apple pie as part of a tattoo he’s getting because his mom used to give him pie every birthday instead of cake, and many of the characters’ relationships are untidy and unresolved. One can catch Oates’ themes of a society that has lost its soul (Johnson,the judge, the system, the other cops, and Unger’s reproachful mom all seem to be fading into corruption and indifference mostly through ennui or disappointment), compelling Cage’s cop to identify himself as a provisional emissary from God, but one can’t hold on to them; the themes are not fully realized. Vengeance: A Love Story reminded me of another “dud,” Karl Reisz and Arthur Miller’s underappreciated Everybody Wins, also about a moral rot having spread like the flu to pollute an entire society, with the protagonists trying to help an abandoned victim receive justice of some sort.
It takes a few minutes to realize the film is fairly serious in intent. Vengeance a Love Story starts with a spirited if unsurprising action scene featuring Cage and his partner performing an arrest that results in the death of the partner, but when Hutchinson steps into the movie as the lonely, promiscuous and good-hearted mom, we sense we’re in a universe without easy answers or predictable outcomes. Hutchison is excellent, in a brave, free performance that credibly transmits the mental damage a physical assault can do; she’s feeling it in her very bones. Unger performs with grave, weary elegance as her mother, a woman whose rationality, she feels, allows her to condescend to the world. Tilton, Rocco Nugent and Joshua Mikel all make strong impressions with limited screen-time, as surly moral carcasses who because of money and a certain status in town (never quite explained) feel licensed to act and think wickedly.
Cage has a harder time, playing an enigmatic character that largely lives around the edges of the material; his character is, oddly, the most impersonally written. It is likely his faith in the material and Carol Oates that he took the part, and he uses his hurt eyes, which can convincingly go dead when his character chooses to act off the moral compass, to good effect. Johnson, a proven authority at playing narcissists, whether playing sociopathically narcissistic in Guilty as Sin, amiably self-absorbed in Tin Cup, or shrewdly self-important in Vengeance: A Love Story, invests fully in his character’s cold proficiency and is both repellent and impressive as the only character truly comfortable in his own shoes.
It’s a slow building film, as we watch it develop to a climax that isn’t so much predictable but inevitable. Director Johnny Martin, mostly known as a stunt-coordinator, coordinates some nifty stunts, and seems a little more at ease staging the action than the drama—the actors seem ready to throw a little more emotional desperation at the scenes than the director knows how to comfortably stage –and the violence and brutality of the rape (witnessed by a child) is so harsh and early in the film it takes a bit for the audience to re-engage with the drama that follows. But the film holds interest even when some developments seem a little less clearheaded than others (Cage’s relationship with Hutchinson’s 12 year old daughter, played well by Talitha Bateman, seems to be missing a few dramatic beats), and, in a kind of misshapen compliment, I suggest this is one film that could have been ten minutes longer. The Fick family of rapists and enablers is so convincingly malevolent in their self-satisfied heinousness that I would have welcomed them in an additional scene or two, and Cage’s character certainly could have used a bit more development, especially as he has the chops to convey further shading than what is on display here.
Still, I thought the film worked; I hold out a little more hope now for Martin’s The Hangman, a shortly arriving stealth-cinema thriller where a 77-year old Al Pacino plays an eccentric detective investigating a serial killer. If S. Craig Zahler, director of the superior Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the Don Siegel of this nascent grotty subculture of stealth cinema, I’m going to be optimistic (before the Hangman comes out and proves terrible or something) and nominate Martins for the Barry Shear position. I don’t know if I’m in love with Vengeance: A Love Story, but it was a pretty involving left-field low-budget surprise.