Vengeance is Mine
1976, Starring Ernest Borgnine, Michael J. Pollard, Hollis McLaren, Vladimir Valenta, Cec Linder, and Louis Zorch. Directed by John Trent (Quadrant Films).
Guest Review by Patrick Lowe
Vengeance Is Mine (also known by its Canadian title, Sunday in the Country) comes from a crop of tax shelter Canuxploitation flicks produced to cash in on the vigilante ultraviolence that bloodied movie screens in the early-to-mid-1970s. Directed by John Trent (Middle Aged Crazy), the film features Ernest Borgnine as a pious farmer who captures and tortures two city thugs when they try to take over his household. Like its counterparts Sudden Fury and Death Weekend (not to mention Rituals, Shoot, The Clown Murders and Deadly Harvest), Vengeance Is Mine boasts all the typical ingredients of a rural Canadian thriller: a lonely, outdoors setting uncompromising violence a stark, survival-of-the-fittest existentialism and a grisly aftermath that leaves all the major characters either dead or barely standing.
Alongside its Canadian cuzzins, Vengeance Is Mine was unkindly lambasted by national critics on three counts: for pandering to the American market cashing in on the deprived tastes of drive-in clientele andthe cardinal sinsquandering valuable tax dollars via the CFDC. Particularly damning was Martin Knelman's critique in his book This is Where We Came In, where he lashed out at the film (alongside Shivers and Black Christmas) for the usual excesses. "It comes out calculating how an audience's basest impulses can be exploited," he writes, claiming it made Straw Dogs look subtle in comparison. "Peckinpah's movie, however loathsome, had skill and talent behind it, and everything that happened came out of the director's vision." Not so with this film, which Knelman felt was "not only hateful but fake." Fellow critic Gerald Pratley derided it as a "bloody and contrived melodrama," marking the movie as the beginning of Canada's "pseudo American period" where the home talent (mainly Toronto-based) took a backseat to actors and settings south of the 49th. Mark Miller, writing in Cinema Canada, took a similar view, arguing that "If violence breeds violence, as (John) Trent tries so hard and so enthusiastically to suggestthen this film is, in a sense, a part of the same process."
Further aggravating critics, the producers exploited the movie's apparent connection with "bloody Sam" in its ad campaign ("Not since Peckinpah's Straw Dogs has the screen exploded with such righteous vengeance!"). This only helped seal the film's fate as seemingly just another derivative Canuck rip-off with delusions of box-office grandeur, doomed to the gutters of late night cable TV and sell-out video bins. Which is too bad, because for all the slack it has gotten, Vengeance is Mine remains a gripping and tightly-made suspenser worthy of reappraisal. Subtle it ain't, but the film does possess a real, if crude, conviction of its own an indictment of the popular assumptions associated with its own genre. Not only did the film challenge the eye-for-an-eye ethics of films such as Death Wish, but it also parted course with the mainstream machismo pervading the drive-in zeitgeist of its dayand it did so in a manner worthy of that noble, if overused label, "distinctly Canadian."
Our story begins in the nondescript American rural town of Locust Hill. We are introduced to Adam Smith (Ernest Borgnine), a virtuous, salt-of-the-earth farmer, who lords over his homestead alongside his flower-child granddaughter Lucy (Holis McLaren) and farmhand Luke (Vladimir Valenta). Played with an appropriate gusto by Borgnine, Adam walks a fine line between a devoted, hard-working patriarch and a crusty-as-hell religious zealot, with more than one bee in his bonnet. Two facets of Adam are soon revealed. First, besides being a widower, he is also haunted by the shadow of his daughter (and Lucy's late mother), who left home to die at an early age. "Maybe her dyin' was the best thing that could've happened to her," he sighs. "Dyin' is good for some folks if life ain't worth livin'." Second, he is getting increasingly agitated with the state of his nation. After declining to attend a local grange meeting, he bitterly gripes to his granddaughter that with the land not paying for itself and local politicians unwilling to help out, the world is getting to be too ugly a place to bear. "I tell you," he growls, "this country's going to damnation, nothing else but." Lucy does her best to tolerate her granddad's underlying bitterness and folksy conservatism with a grain of salt. Alas, she will be unprepared for the grapes of wrath Adam's vineyard will soon unleash.
The catalyst to Adam's deeper rage comes in the form of three vicious city hoodlums, Dinelli (Louis Zorich), Ackerman (Cec Linder) and the psychotic, but moronic Leroy (Michael J. Pollard). On the run after a bank robbery, and murder, the fugitives find themselves walking into Adam's front yard to evade the authorities. But Adam, having been previously been informed by the Sheriff (Al Waxman) and following his own gut instincts, plants a trap for the trio. He shoots Dinellithe leaderdead, and takes Leroy and Ackerman prisoner. To Lucy's disgust, Adam doesn't immediately turn them over to the police, but decides to inflict upon his guests a bit of his own homespun justice. "I've always protected mine and my own," he declares, "I don't intend to stop now."
After sadistically teasing the two surviving felons with their own firearms on the manure pile, Adam has them both strung up in the cellar, hanging by their necks. Incensed, Lucy tries to run off and inform the authorities, only to be apprehended by Luke. Unable to make clear to his own kin the wisdom of his actions, Adam decides a little lesson is in order. When, out of kindness, Lucy tries to offer a glass of cold water to the nearly dehydrated prisoners, Leroy momentarily escapes and tries to rape the poor girl. Adam, however, bides his time before intervening, hoping to show his granddaughter how much these vagrants deserve their just desserts. But the lesson backfires Adam comes off as a major manipulator, revealing to Lucy why her mother really did make a run for it. This in turn eventually forces his granddaughter to make a second and final escape.
Now, Adam decides a little game is in order. He brings out the two fugitives, flips a coin, and grants the winnerAckermanaccess to the farm truck to drive off for help. That is, providing Ackerman can get past the farmer's guard dogs. In the film's bloody climax, the hoodlum is torn to shreds in his escape attempt, and Adam's fall from grace is complete: the police arrive to take the giggling Leroy into custody Adam looks as if he'll be indicted in a double homicide and Lucy and Luke, the only two people he truly loves, abandon him in disgust.
Vengeance is Mine is a diamond in the rough, but as with any stone of merit, there are a few genuine flaws. For instance, the rural themes that Trent and his co-writers try to encapsulate are too one-dimensional, verging on Hee Haw simplicity at times. This is not helped when Borgnine occasionally plays up Adam as a barnyard rube with his "aw-shucks" mentality and corn-fed aphorisms. Additionally, the movie lacks a regionalism that might have imbued it with a more genuine sense of time and place, in turn heightening the underlying tensions between Adam and the world outsidehere we only get a Hollywood view of the heartland. Adding to this annoyance are Paul Hoffert's hokey country & western songs, plus William Maculay's overwrought score, which swells up at the most inappropriate times. During Lucy's love encounter with her boyfriend Eddie, the music becomes more nauseating then the actual bloodletting.
Although the script's dialogue occasionally wobbles, it is helped by good pacing, a solid cast and Marc Champion's sunlit photography, in which the bright tranquility of the countryside is contrasted with the onscreen carnage. In spite of occasionally overplaying the part of country yokel, Borgnine is wonderfully cast in one of his better post-Marty roles. His large pumpkin head, beady eyes, giant black eyebrows and toothy smile make for a man both benevolent and malevolent. His presence is complemented by Michael J. Pollard's giggling, semi-retarded Leroy. With his greasy hair, oversized mutton chops, and pug face, Pollard's unkempt little beast is a malignant delight from start to finisha hippie Caliban, whose wild-man antics are capable of eliciting all sorts of reactions. As the voice of spontaneous depravity, he also becomes the film's very id as well as Adam's foil, imbuing their final confrontation with a slightly Shakespearean tone.
Vengeance is Mine also hits its stride when it sticks to the bare-bones exploitation basics. Although the violence, for all its impact, is mild compared to today's visceral bloodletting, the film still warrants attention by harkening back to the conflicting attitudes towards men and violence on the silver screen. The onslaught of ultraviolent cinema from the late 60s to the mid-70s was largely an excursion in male freedom. Usually the heroesor anti-heroeswreaked havoc as a means to both oppose the system and assert their own particular triumph of the will, no longer hampered by the Hays or other outdated codes of honour. Billy Jack, Lt. Frank Bullitt, Popeye Doyle, Dirty Harry, Buford Pusser, John Shaft, Travis Bickle, Alex and his Droogs, et al. were now free to swear, fornicate, maim, and stick it to the Man. The corruption of the police force, civil government, and society in general made taking out the bastards a dead necessity, as well as a form of male liberation. Critics like Pauline Kael deplored this stance (more than once she referred to it as "fascist"), but as cynical as the attitude was, it opened up the filmic potential for anti-establishment catharsis and kinetic blood spurting.
Obviously, Peckinpah's work was synonymous with the spirit of this machismo, and while John Trent's direction may lack the aesthetic power of Peckinpah, he doles out the cinematic violence briskly and quickly. Scenes such as Lucy's assault or the two innocent bystanders getting gunned down by the hoodlums have a sudden, searing brutality akin to a bull entering a china shop. Upon reviewing the two films side-by-side, however, Vengeance is Mine stands as an antithesis to everything that Straw Dogs and the cinematic machismo of the 1970s stood for.
In his critique of Vengeance is Mine, Mark Miller mistakenly assumes its makers are ultimately on Adam's side, writing " (Adam) offers no admission or remorse. Nor does the film suggest that he should: it is clearly drawn in his favour. His rationalizations in turn speak for the film's simplistic morality." Actually, anyone watching the film would be just as inclined to draw the opposite conclusion. It's pretty clear that Adam is descending onto a moral plane little better than the thugs he tortures. Yet it's not just Adam's own brand of self-administered justice that pushes him down the slippery slope. Like so many anti-heroes, he is really using Leroy and Ackerman to vent his rage against the outside world, a world which has claimed his only daughter and betrayed him at every turn. This becomes more evident in his condescension towards Lucy, who inadvertently develops into the film's moral anchor. Played with winsome sensitivity by McLaren (best known for her part as Liza in Outrageous), Lucy initially acts as a go-between for Adam and the surrounding community, still a willing participant of the surrounding society Adam disdains (she is, after all, a college student). With the arrival of the robbers, Lucy not only becomes the voice of reason that Adam poo-poos, but sadly, the unintended victim of his vehemence. No scene better demonstrates this than when Lucy finally escapes with Eddie in his van, leading Adam to momentarily point his gun at them as they flee. Poor Adam. Once again, he's lost kin to the world he's fenced out.
In Straw Dogs, academic pacifist David (Dustin Hoffman) spends the majority of the film avoiding confrontation with the local male rowdies. Adam, on the other hand, is ready for confrontation right from the get go. David, towards the end, makes the final decision to take a stand while protecting the local village idiot, Niles (David Warner) from the outside mob. His simple rationale of "this is my home" is the same outlook that Adam adheres to. Both David and Adam take the same condescending view towards the only woman in their midst, both admonishing the gentler sex to go upstairs and stop worrying leave it to the men to take care of business. But this is where the similarities end. Straw Dogs is clearly on David's side as he asserts himself, bitch-slapping his cowardly wife (Susan George) when she tries to acquiesce to the outside mob. But with Vengeance is Mine, as already noted, it is Lucy who has the moral high ground, refusing to capitulate to her grandfather's frontier-style justice.
Finally, there is the difference in final tone set by both films' endings. There has been some debate to whether David loses his moral compass in Straw Dogs, having made his home a slaughterhouse, but it's pretty evident that he has gained a foothold to his own manhood. No longer cowering before the world, he is the one now walking tall. No such satisfaction can be found in Vengeance is Mine's finale. After being taken into custody, Leroy overcomes his captors, crashes the police vehicle, and pulls himself out staggering back to Adam's farm. Still handcuffed yet holding the deputy's pistol, he screams out to his former captor to come out and fight. Disheartened, Adam stands nonchalantly before his former hostage coming up the road, rifle held limply at his side, as if prepared to take his just reward. Exactly what happens next is slightly ambiguous. The scene is framed so we can only see Leroy firing his weapon and falling over either his gun backfired or Adam really did shoot him. But the final close up still shows Adam on his two feet, alone to morosely contemplate the fruits of his actions. The point is obviousboth men, in fact, are mirror image psychotics: one depraved, the other self-righteous. Both have been dealt their just rewards: one with death, the other with a guilty conscience. Like King Lear, Adam has been punished for his male pride, abandoned by the ones he loved, with only the fool (albeit a dead one) to keep him company. The grapes of wrath turn very sour indeed.
This is where, however unintentional, a Canadian angle is at work. An American film would have ended by endorsing Adam, on top of it all, alone but unbowed, still a role model to the audience. Vengeance is Mine does the exact opposite, judging the vigilante and man-of-the-house as an empty and abandoned vessel. In some ways, probably not intended by the producers, the film becomes a Canuck critique of rural Americacloistered, self-righteous and ultimately self-defeatingas well as a dissection of the ambiguities surrounding eye-for-an-eye morality. Or as my friend Dennis Valdron once wrote in another context, "this ambiguity may represent a distinctly Canadian approach: a refusal or unwillingness to believe that a good sock to the jaw solves all the world's problems." It is this approach which gives Vengeance is Mine its stature. For a run-of-the-mill bit of schlock Canadiana, long excluded from the annals of what was considered nationally correct, that's nothing to be ashamed of.