Vengeance: A Love Story (2017)

US / 99 minutes / color / Patriot, Saturn, FilmRise, Hannibal Dir: Johnny Martin Pr: Michael Mendelsohn, Nicolas Cage Scr: John Mankiewicz Story: Rape: A Love Story (2003) by Joyce Carol Oates Cine: David Stragmeister Cast: Nicolas Cage, Anna Hutchison, Talitha Bateman, Deborah Kara Unger, Don Johnson, Joshua Mikel, Rocco Nugent, Joe Ochterbeck, Carter Burch, Charlene Tilton, Dikran Tulaine, Kara Flowers, Jimmy Gonzales, Cory Scott Allen, Mike Pniewski.

A somewhat idiosyncratic piece—as you might expect from its being based on a Joyce Carol Oates novel—that seems to set out to be a pretty standard vigilante-cop movie and yet somehow never quite commits to that template. Instead of focusing on the offing of the bad guys—those killings are treated almost as incidentals—and instead even of focusing on the cop, the movie instead becomes almost a character study of the people closest to a rape victim: her daughter and her mother.

In Niagara Falls, NY, on the night of July 4, young widow Teena Maguire (Hutchison) walks with her 12-year-old daughter Bethel “Bethie” (Bateman) home from a late-night party, short-cutting through a park. Four drunken, drugged-up no-goods—Marvin Fick (Mikel), his brother Lloyd (Nugent), Jimmy DeLucca (Ochterbeck) and Fritz Haaber (Burch)—assault the pair, dragging them to a darkened boathouse. There Bethie cowers in terror as the quartet violently rape her mother and leave her for dead.

Anna Hutchison as Teena.

Detective John Dromoor (Cage), who has recently lost his partner in a shootout, is put on the case with his new partner Zwaff (Gonzales).

Nicolas Cage as John.

Coaxed by Assistant DA Harriet Dixon (Flowers), Bethie is able to identify her mother’s assailants. But the parents of the Fick brothers hire a hotshot defense lawyer, Jay Kirkpatrick (Johnson), and at the pre-trial hearing he manages, with the assistance of good-ol’-boy Judge Schpiro (Pniewski), to promulgate an alternative narrative—that, far from being raped, Teena prostituted herself to the four men and then tried to extort them.

Talitha Bateman as Bethie.

Although physically recuperating at the home of her mother, Agnes Kevecki (Unger), Teena is still psychologically a mess, little able to cope with the local popularity of the canard that she’s a lying whore. When the men are released on bail and start threatening the two Maguires, it’s the last straw.

Deborah Kara Unger as Agnes.

Kara Flowers as Dixon.

Detective Dromoor thinks so too. A Desert Storm veteran, he’s seen his share of killing. He determines to take the four thugs out of the Maguires’ lives. Permanently.

Nicolas Cage has been criticized for phoning in his performance as Dromoor, yet it seems to me his psychological distancing of himself from the mayhem is calculated. Almost businesslike as he goes about his murderous business, Dromoor appears to be in a sort of fugue state, as if deliberately standing back from real life just long enough to do what he has decided needs to be done to remedy the terrible situation in which the Maguires have been placed. In a sense he’s not seeking the vengeance of the movie’s title so much as a rectification: life has written the script wrong, and it’s his duty to correct that error.

Don Johnson as Jay Kirkpatrick.

Mike Pniewski as Schpiro.

But the character at the heart of the tale isn’t really Dromoor or even Teena: it’s Bethie. She’s the one we identify with, even when—as is often the case—she’s not part of the immediate action. This puts a great deal of weight upon the young shoulders of Talitha Bateman, who in addition to everything else has to act some years younger than her true age. Deborah Kara Unger, a site favorite, has a somewhat easier time of it as the mother who does her best to be her daughter’s bulwark against the world’s vicissitudes but lacks the necessary empathy, so that she ends up being a tower of strength at all the wrong times. Anna Hutchison, in the dual role of Teena Before and After, impresses as well.

It’s no wonder, alongside these three, that Cage was thought by so many to be repressed to the point of boredom. As I say, I read his performance otherwise. It would have been easy for him to start chewing up the scenery as per usual . . . to the movie’s detriment.

The rape scene is truly brutal. We’re left in no doubt as to the savagery of the attack. The sequence is absolutely repellent, and intended to be. Any dolt who comes to the movie thinking that gang rape isn’t all that serious a crime, not really, is in for a nasty awakening. Don Johnson, as the scumbag lawyer, and Mike Pniewski, as the even scummier judge, represent exactly such dolts, but unawakened and determined to remain so. We don’t have to look far for their counterparts in real life.

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