Review of “Vengeance Is Mine”: A Messy Web of Human Drives.
This complicated movie by Michael Roemer, which came out in 1984 under the name “Haunted,” is finally getting the proper theatrical release it deserves.
I’ve never thought of Brooke Adams as a “Vengeance Is Mine” kind of actress. For a title like that, you need to be mean, angry, or have a strong sense of being wronged. By 1984, she had never been close to anything in a movie. Ravishment, sure. Kookiness, yeah. But not a character with enough depth to take revenge. That husky voice, that sharp, kind face, that sense of humor she was born with: She was what men thought of when they thought of a sexpot. In “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” she spun her eyes for Donald Sutherland, and Richard Gere wanted her in “Days of Heaven.” In “Cuba,” she was almost tied to Sean Connery like a suicide vest.
So it was a surprise to see her go to town on this dramatic comedy by Michael Roemer about a woman who visits her family in Massachusetts and, after a series of completely unexpected emotional entanglements, spends the whole movie not quite dropping out. When you have a great part in a great movie (and this movie is great, not to mention fantastic), an actor can bring “sexpot” to life so that what she is playing is pure energy.
To be fair to Adams, she might have thought she was the main character in the movie “Haunted.” That’s what Roemer decided to call “Vengeance Is Mine” 38 years ago, when it never got a proper theatrical release, never got the rapturous or even fair or serious reviews it deserved, and therefore never had the paying art-house audience that would have filled a theater lobby arguing about what the hell they just saw. Instead, “Haunted” ended up on PBS’s “American Playhouse,” which didn’t get much attention or praise from the public.
Now, it’s called “Vengeance Is Mine,” it’s being shown at Film Forum, and everyone can see it. And what you’ll see is an American movie made with the carefree attitude of a French movie. In other words, it still feels original. It’s one of those movies that someone wrote and directed (in this case, Roemer), but it feels like it’s controlled entirely by human impulses and is, in a way, lawless.
In the first scene, which takes place on a plane that has just landed, Adams’ face shows a range of emotions, from moony to sad to glum to chagrined, and back to moony again (she’s met the drink cart). The expressions also serve as a musical overture, giving a sneak peek of the whole movie in one face but not giving away everything. I wondered where this was going. Where is she headed? Where does she get her ideas? Who does she now have? (We don’t need a shot of the plane in the air because it’s clear that Adams is the one flying.) One of the best things about this movie is that Roemer doesn’t tell us everything. It feels both free and very private at the same time.
Adams’s character, Jo, has shown up a little drunk to spend time with the sick, devoutly Christian snowball of a woman who adopted her. This woman is being moved into some kind of care facility that she seems destined to turn into an igloo. Before going to mom’s, Jo and her sister Fran (Audrey Matson) stop at a diner, where a man named Dana (Kenneth Ryan), wearing workman’s blues, gets up from a table with his wife and kids to talk to Jo. There’s still something going on between them that makes you think, for a moment, that this is where the movie is going: nostalgia, old flames. But then Jo tells Fran that Dana is the one who got her pregnant. “No,” she tells herself again. “I’m going to get pregnant with him.” She is showing off.
The movie has a great understanding of what is sugar-free and a strong dislike of clichés. Yes, Jo does tell her mom that she found her birth mother. But no, that’s not what the movie is about either. Even as Jo apologizes for “the hate” between them, the adoptive mother just sets out her things as if she didn’t have a daughter, as if Jo isn’t even there.
It seems like the plot just happens to Jo. Her husband Steve, played by Mark Arnott, flies into town to show us why she may have left. Their few scenes together are full of angry tension that builds up to a violent act that really scared me. Not only is she trying to get away from the brutality, but she might also like the chaos. Instead of running away to Seattle, where a new life seems to be waiting, Jo stays in New England and gets caught up in the chaos of another family.
Instead of staying with Fran, she makes friends with the not-too-rich family next door and then moves in with them. First, a young girl named Jackie (Ari Meyers), then Jackie’s mother, Donna (Trish Van Devere), and then Donna’s husband, Tom (Jon DeVries), who is almost begging Donna to sign the divorce papers. And to understand why, you need to see one or two scenes with Donna. She is going. Way, way off.
At first, we think Donna is about a woman who plays the sexist hand she’s been dealt by going to a sleazy gallery owner’s place and begging him to show some of her work. He’ll think about it if she offers to drive him to the airport, but all he wants to talk about is whether she’s still with Tom. Then, she goes up to his apartment with a mix of confidence and resignation, while Jackie and Jo are still in the car. When they get back on the ground, she starts to insult him in a racist way. So I guess she won’t show up!
I don’t know what Van Devere thought of this show. It’s both tight and falling apart, by a lake and on a volcano. It doesn’t hold back in a way that you don’t often see in a “arty little drama.” Van Devere was married to George C. Scott for many years, when Scott was at the top of his acting game. She knows how to give an all-out performance. Because, look, she’s all used up. She acts out the loneliness, heartbreak, and anger, as well as the emotional craziness, mental breakdown, and pride. Tom begs her to go to the doctor. She promises to do it. But you worry that she thinks she can’t be saved, that she can save herself, and that no one can help her.
Donna would have been a blank-from-hell after seeing a bad movie or at least one with a moral. She would be out boiling rabbits or getting Jo’s haircut. The movie would use the tricks of a certain type of movie to scare us. But Roemer works hard, but in a quiet way, to keep the movie from ending with a verdict and from being about anything familiar. We have the right to judge. But Roemer never does, even when the movie comes close to being a thriller when it shouldn’t be. But Donna isn’t just a misogynist ghost in this case. She’s a ghost of love.
This is a masterwork of directing. There’s nothing too flashy about it, but everything is true and right for these characters and this situation. Roemer hasn’t made many movies (he’s in his mid-90s now): “Nothing but a Man,” a quiet movie about the civil rights movement; “The Plot Against Harry,” a comedy about a Jewish gangster; and “Dying,” a documentary triptych that was a big deal when it came out on PBS in the late 1970s. He’s always been a kind of “truth-teller” artist.
Here, though, that documentary urge seems uncanny, especially because Adams and Van Devere can get to every emotion so quickly. In the middle, Jo loses her energy for a while because Donna takes the air out of every room. But because this is also a deep psychological portrait of the family as a whole, it feels like Jo is watching this family, wondering what she has gotten herself into as Donna’s sister, Jackie’s mother, and Tom’s (more or less) lover. It’s not good. But one that Roemer understands, even when Adams and Van Devere are yelling at each other like wild animals.
So, what’s the real story of this movie? I would say choices. Some of them are pretty funny. Sabotage. Self¬¬-sabotage. I thought Donna was crazy when she said that Jo would end up with Tom. But she was just being the accusatory person she always is.
“Vengeance Is Mine” is a story about mothers, daughters, God, puritans, quiet Eastern Europeans, and “ethnics.” It was written by Roemer, a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust as a child on a train for children called a “Kindertransport.” The film seems simple at first, but it has a lot of literary and cinematic depth. Barbara Taylor Bradford wears clothes from John Updike, Phil Donahue, and Ingmar Bergman. The movie could fit in with Woody Allen and Henry Jaglom’s mental instability and angst about being a middle-class person. Its return brings the same surprise and joy as when Kathleen Collins’s romantic comedy “Losing Ground,” which was made in 1982 but didn’t get much attention until a few years ago, was rediscovered.
In Roemer’s movie, the situations of the different characters mirror and double each other, but they never fit together. The movie’s nice homes and Donna’s early 1980s sense of style are ruined by low-life and spite. People are funny and interesting in the same way that these characters are funny and interesting. Men love their convertibles, and women love their wine. Ways of doing harm that don’t leave a clear mark. In a way that feels a little bit sociopathic, life just goes on. Roemer is not making fun of the revenge. It’s all over.