The revenge movie is one of cinema’s fail-safe premises. Whether you’re coming from the Hollywood side of filmmaking or the deepest gutters of exploitation, the revenge movie punches the audience’s buttons in a reliable, effortlessly effective fashion. As long as the basic rules of this archetype are respected, the end results are guaranteed to draw a visceral reaction from the viewer.
Eye For An Eye is an interesting upscale variant on this form. It wastes little time before going for the audience’s throat: moments after our mom/businesswoman hero Karen McCann (Sally Field) is introduced, her teenage daughter is raped and killed by a faceless attacker. To make it worse, this happens while Karen on the phone with her, stuck in traffic. As she makes a flustered bid to secure help and get home, she hears every last ugly sound of her daughter’s ordeal.
Karen is haunted by the tragedy as she tries to move on but things get worse when the killer, Robert Doob (an appropriately nasty Kiefer Sutherland), is found. Nice-guy cop Denillo (Joe Mantegna) assures Karen that justice will be done but threadbare evidence and the mishandling of a trial procedure allow Robert to be set free. Karen begins to ponder the option of revenge, learning self-defense skills and following Robert around. Her dilemma becomes a dance of death when Robert quickly figures out that he’s being tailed and begins plotting his own retaliation.
Eye For An Eye was savaged by critics during its release in 1996: it had the misfortune of opening around the same time as the respected death-penalty drama Dead Man Walking and many critics found its tacit approval of vigilantism tacky in the wake of the then-recent O.J. Simpson trial (acknowledged in the film by a glimpse of the trial on the t.v. screen). In fairness, Eye For An Eye is flawed from this perspective: the villain is portrayed as an unredeemable monster, the morality of revenge is never questioned and the film ruthlessly stacks the deck in favor of its heroine. However, these critiques miss the point of the film: it is not about discussing issues. It is about catharsis.
Regardless of what you think of its morality, the film is helmed with skill and style. The script was adapted from Erika Holzer’s novel by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, the same team who exploited parental fears with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and it hums along with clockwork precision. Director John Schlesinger was on the downward swing of his career at this time but he turns in a professional performance behind the camera, managing some nerve-wracking setpieces along the way: the best might be a scene where Field chases after her younger daughter in a crowd and imagines every strange man she bumps into as the guy who attacked her eldest daughter.
However, the fuel for the fire in Eye For An Eye is its performances. The film wisely used its generous budget to pull in an array of worthwhile character actors: Ed Harris scores a few nice scenes as Karen’s second husband, Mantegna delivers the appropriate mixture of grit and world-weariness as the cop on the case and Charlayne Woodard is impressive as a fellow child-murder victim who befriends Karen. There are also effective turns from Philip Baker Hall and Keith David as survivor-group participants with their own sinister agenda (the film’s most interesting subplot). Elsewhere, kung-fu flick fans will be amused by a cameo from fighting femme Cynthia Rothrock as a self-defense teacher.
As rock-solid as the supporting cast is, such praise would be immaterial if the leads weren’t impressive. Thankfully, Field and Sutherland nail their roles. Field brings an emotional depth to Karen, drawing the viewer her conflicting emotions as she moves toward revenge. Her natural likeability goes a long way towards bringing the audience around to the character’s actions. Sutherland is just as impressive, breathing fresh life into a paper-thin role via an impressive display of negative charisma. He creates the grown-up’s version of the Boogeyman – especially during a great scene where he tracks Karen’s youngest daughter at school – and revenge-flicks will love hating him.
To sum up, Eye For An Eye is a big-budget exploitation flick that breezes past serious issues to exploit its audience’s craving for primal justice… and it works like a charm because everyone involved knew how to pull it off. The revenge movie wins again.