The surfaces of Vengeance Is Mine are so modest that the film’s deep vein of emotional terror sneaks up on you. That the picture is a family drama probably goes without saying; families, after all, are where the mundane can turn monstrous in an instant and where everyday interactions often mask slowly pulverizing cruelties. Originally made in 1984 by the German American independent director Michael Roemer (more on him in a bit), the movie is finally getting a theatrical release this weekend in 35-mm. at Film Forum in New York City. (In its day, it ran on PBS’s American Playhouse to poor reviews and little viewer interest.) Those who can see it, should. Those who can’t should hope that enough of us in the former category buy enough tickets that it expands around the country. It’s a genuine discovery.
Roemer’s film follows Jo (Brooke Adams), a recently divorced woman briefly returning to her family home in a coastal New England town after a long time away. Her mother is sick and her sister, Fran (Audry Matson), has just had a baby. Jo and her sister were both adopted, but Fran somehow got all the love and attention while Jo mostly attracted her hyperreligious mother’s wrath. (“Hate” is the word Jo uses.) An outcast in her sister’s nascent family and still practically invisible to her dying mother, Jo soon drifts into the lives of the family next door thanks to the playful familiarity of their young daughter Jackie (Ari Meyers). There, she finds a simmering cauldron of resentment: Jackie’s mother, a psychologically fragile local artist named Donna (Trish Van Devere), is preparing to leave for good, and the child plans to stay behind with her father, Tom (Jon De Vries), an overwhelmed but mostly reliable journalist.
Somehow, in this shattered family with weird echoes of her own, Jo finds a place — first befriending Donna, and then, as Donna’s mental health deteriorates, getting closer to Tom and Jackie, with all the emotional complications that suggests. If Jo had started to feel like a ghost in her own family, now Donna feels like a ghost in hers, hovering outside windows in the night, looking in at this strange new woman who has suddenly become a surrogate mother to her child and a romantic companion to her estranged husband.
Roemer never judges these people, however. It makes perfect psychological sense for Jo to find her place with Jackie and Tom — especially as Jo herself, we learn, had once had a child, only to have the baby taken from her and given up for adoption. This is the stuff of high melodrama, but it’s delivered with artful understatement: Roemer understands that around other people, we try to submerge our turmoil. One of the things that marks Donna as someone incapable of functioning in the real world is the fact that she can’t seem to smother her impulses and feelings. She says what she’s thinking. She breaks down. She shrieks. She lies, then tells the truth, then lies again. She puts the people around her in danger. She lacks a filter, and the film is both in awe of and terrified of her raw, whipsawing honesty.
Vengeance Is Mine is about as visually unadorned as movies come, and yet every shot is riveting. It has that in common with the director’s other films, all of them unshowy and astounding. Over and over again, Roemer proved himself to be calamitously ahead of his time. His debut feature, 1964’s Nothing But a Man, an unsentimental but tender look at a working-class African American couple (played by Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln) in the Deep South, won prizes at Venice and was briefly acclaimed before disappearing for decades; today, it’s a canonical classic. His follow-up, 1969’s delicately observed and surreal gangland comedy The Plot Against Harry, was apparently so loathed in early screenings that the director shelved it; it wasn’t until 1989 that he submitted it to the New York Film Festival on a whim and the picture became a small indie phenomenon. And now here’s Vengeance Is Mine, completely discarded and ignored in its day, arriving on our screens like pure cinematic oxygen. Roemer, who as a child fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport to England, is 94 now. I’m glad he’s able to witness yet another reemergence of his work.
Here, a personal note. Michael Roemer was one of my professors in college. He taught film at Yale for over four decades, and the modesty of his filmmaking was not a fluke, or a pretense. I took, by my count, four classes with him (including a lively and popular class on American film comedy), and he rarely discussed the pictures he himself had made. He did, on a couple of occasions, make mostly dismissive references to Vengeance Is Mine (always using the title with which it had aired on TV, Haunted). These films were not widely available. I gradually learned of Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry from other sources; one would never have guessed in class that this engaging and jovial guy with his legs constantly up on a chair and a cup of coffee seemingly glued to his hand was one of the great unsung masters of American cinema. But you could tell he was an artist because he taught you nothing practical — after multiple filmmaking classes with him, you wouldn’t know what the 180-degree rule was, or what a match-on-action was, or what constituted a well-lit shot or a well-composed image or even a good performance. (I had to take a summer course at NYU to learn all that.)
It never felt like you were learning with Roemer, but you were. Mostly we watched and talked and watched and talked some more. It was some time before I understood what was happening, as he marveled over a particular glance or gesture or an unexpected bit of business in a student’s raw, pixelated footage. (This was before the age of digital video, and our school had nuked its 16-mm. program, so we were shooting on terrible, unwieldy VHS cameras, which I now realize must have made him want to gouge his eyes out.) And when he marveled, he really marveled. His voice, with that German–New York hybrid accent of his, would go up several octaves as he cooed and chuckled like a small child. What he liked, I eventually understood, was revelation: The shots that moved him, no matter how indifferently framed or lit, always showed you something new, something unexpected and real even if it was small. So that was filmmaking. Michael Roemer provided a lesson unavailable in any textbook or teaching guide or curriculum. He taught you how to see. Watching Vengeance Is Mine, it’s clear that he practiced what he preached.
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