Genevieve Spoils Everything: There's a time and place for revenge

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 28, 2014

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Old pros at work: Jim Mickle’s slick drama "Cold in July" stars (from left) Sam Shepard, Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson.

Sometimes amid the movies coming out in a given week, a double bill happens by accident.

The opening shot of Cold in July pulls back leisurely from an expansive, moody landscape, revealing by inches that it’s actually a modest painting cozied in a domestic tableau. Soon the painting will be ruined by blood spatter during the home invasion that follows. But its bleak, low sky is a warning of things to come, as its hero is drawn to the nighttime skulking so often required of men in their family noirs. Soon, Richard will realize the manslaughter is a cover for something more sinister, and take up arms with other men to settle a score only tangentially his; it’s Ben, who thinks he’s lost a son, who first threatens and then allies with Richard in his quest to stop the bad guys at any cost. As if in a bad dream that requires participation, Richard attaches himself to Ben as Ben attempts to track down his son. The alternative never occurs to either man.

For novitiate nun Ida, the family noir also has the feeling of a dream, but here, the opposite dream-logic is true: Though she’s certainly observant, Ida is also markedly inert. Her establishing image is of being benevolently surrounded, painting a statue of Jesus in silence. Her geography changes from the spare beauty of the abbey to the Polish countryside, in the passenger seat of her aunt’s car, tracking down the people who murdered her parents in the devastatingly modest hopes of reclaiming their bones. Here, Ida becomes drawn into her aunt’s quest, a dream that requires her participation. But despite a laundry list of places to which they travel, Ida remains a fixed point, and only the landscape changes.

Watching the two in succession, it’s striking how the films approach the ideas of family ghosts. Each plot centers around a lost generation in a family where reconciliation is largely impossible because the damage is too deep. In each, the character who’s lost family confronts the man responsible. For both Ben and Ida, there’s no easy resolution. Each film is influenced heavily by its geography. Ben’s living in 1989 Texas, where guns are so plentiful that Richard seems to conjure a gun store simply by thinking of one. Poland in 1960 is dealing with post-war scarcity and political upheaval, and Ida’s aunt Wanda is in a superior position simply by having cigarettes. Both deliberately draw their home landscapes as characters: faulted but beloved, an unknowable strangeness in which we make homes. These geographies are personal.

Each of these films fits into larger stories. Cold in July is man’s-man revenge fantasy and bears more than passing similarity to Out of the Furnace and even Blue Ruin, noirs in which men must settle family business. Ida is a much more contemplative film, and women as narrative centers are rare enough that Ida has no such obvious forebears from the last few years (though she joins a long tradition of thoughtful, dissatisfied nuns). But it’s remarkable how often the man’s journey is one of action—most often retribution—and how often the woman’s is one of acceptance. It’s not an absolute, but those that deviate from it leave marked impressions. Winter’s Bone, a family noir that made Ree Dolly an active, determined center, scored Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar nomination. And Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire made the masculine revenge flick a woman’s journey, which garnered criticism that Gina Carano doing her own fight scenes was excessively violent.

Geography in any story is more than the physical; Ida facing her parents’ murderers is the result of forward motion, an act of courage that can be directly mapped to Ben being faced with a wrenching family truth of his own. But these personal landscapes don’t tidy up in frames. One wonders about the repeating scale of those landscapes and, maybe, questions their destination.

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