Based on the novella by Jim Harrison, Revenge may just be the most sumptuous film in Tony Scott’s body of work. It may also be one of the moodiest and most melancholy film roles ever handed to Kevin Costner, who plays Jay Cochran, a retiring United States Air Force pilot who heads to Mexico after one final flight to spend some time with his old friend, Tiburon Mendez, an organised crime boss played by Anthony Quinn. Upon arriving, however, Jay quickly falls for Tiburon’s wife, Miryea, played by Madeleine Stowe, who is unhappy in her marriage, partly because of the age gap between her and Tiburon, and partly because Tiburon isn’t interested in having children. Things escalate between Jay and Miryea fairly quickly, and it’s only a matter of time before Tiburon finds out, at which point he confronts them at his country retreat, beats Jay to within an inch of his life, and consigns Miryea to a brothel for the foreseeable future. From there, Jay must find a way to both reunite with Miryea and take revenge upon Tiburon, although the nature of that revenge, and the way in which the extended third act plays out, is quite unexpected and unconventional.
In part, that’s because the relationship between Jay and Miryea isn’t really the main focus of the film, which, like all of Morrison’s creations (he also wrote Legends of the Fall) is far more interested in taking the bucolic, lyrical, nostalgic sentiment between men as far as it can go. From the opening scene in which Jay’s buddies farewell him at the airbase to his long and soulful scenes with Tiburon, the relations between men in the film are almost too airbrushed and idyllic, so precarious in their Edenic rapture that the sheer presence of a woman is noirish in itself, and more than enough to throw the film off balance. In order to capture the intensity of that male sentiment, Scott builds an atmosphere so thick and languorous that it’s hard to know whether it’s smouldering or suffocating, stifling the characters with a sensuality so ripe and strong that it seems poised on the cusp of turning rotten, like a rose that has just passed its maximum bloom. To that end, cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball suffuses every space with fixtures that thicken and slow the passage of light, as an unbearable and oppressive ambience accrues around the slightest gestures, and every mise-en-scene brims with the humidity of a burgeoning thunderstorm.
At much as Costner might be top-billed, it’s Quinn who really carries the film, in one of the most stylised performances of his entire career, and a performance that could only exist in this form with an entire career’s worth of experience behind it. From the moment we meet him, it’s clear that Tiburon demands a stylised atmosphere to be orchestrated around him, an atmosphere that is all but impossible for anyone who doesn’t already have a prior connection with him to maintain. At one point, he executes a henchman for not being mannered enough in his dealings with him, while his sole motivation for not having children is that it will ruin Miryea’s figure. No surprise, then, that it is so traumatic for him when Miryea turns out to have betrayed him, and yet in some sense Miryea has already betrayed him by being a woman, since it feels as if the kind of mannered atmosphere that Tiburon requires is one that is best inhabited and facilitated by men in the first place. While Miryea may be more mannered than any other person in the film, then, she is so mannered that she is also barely in the film except as a third party between the two leads, which is perhaps why Stowe’s performance feels like some of a forerunner to her monochromatic, melodramatic depiction of Victoria Grayson in the first season of ABC’s Revenge.
In other words, whereas Days of Thunder tried to exceed the kinetic energy of Top Gun, here Scott starts with an even more supersonic sequence only to subsume it into a stillness that is as visceral as the fastest moments in any of his previous films. It is, in effect, his version of slow cinema, taking full advantage of a moment in Hollywood at which Central and South America suddenly became a horizon for envisaging a hyperreal agglomeration of atmosphere that almost seemed to exceed what cinema itself could depict. While there may be no shortage of dynamic sex scenes, then, Scott always cuts just before orgasm, leaving all the inchoate sexual energy uncontained and unresolved, and imbuing every look and inflection with a polymorphous exuberance, until it feels as if every gesture is a form of foreplay, and every moment of contact is a sexual stimulation. In the process, Revenge collapses Jay and Miryea’s sexual longings into a more immense and insatiable appetite that imbues the film with a lascivious oral fixation in its indiscriminate relish for food, violence, sexuality and all the other ways in which the human body can gratify itself. In its own way, the camera is as tactile and as embodied here as in Days of Thunder, as Scott tries to get as close as possible to the surface of the skin, which always seems to be covered with a thin film of sweat, beads of moisture that bring the blood right up to the very threshold of visibility, and form a prism through which Kimball’s cinematography is refracted and inflected.
Not surprisingly, a point eventually comes at which the narrative momentum of Revenge entirely ceases under the weight of this atmospheric intensity, and is instead subsumed into a series of stand-alone set pieces that effectively relegate Jay and Miryea to separate films. For while Tiburon may beat Jay to within an inch of his life and consign his wife to a brothel, his real revenge is his reminder that nobody can properly or permanently inhabit the languorous, luxurious ambience he has erected around himself. Far from Jay and Miryea having exceeded it, they have simply forced him to imprison them deeper within it, as he distends their desire across an ever-coagulating mise-en-scene of his own criminal creation. Yet the great twist of Revenge is that Jay and Miryea’s desire becomes so abstracted in the process that they managed to tap into the polymorphous ambience of Tiburon’s affective kingdom more effectively than Tiburon ever could, until their isolation from each other forces them to occupy all the thresholds that constitute the syntax of the film itself. Thus, while Revenge might appear to open with the body of a dehydrated Mexican immigrant sprawled on the earth beneath Jay’s final flying mission, that body actually turns out to be Jay himself after he is left for dead by Tiburon. Similarly, while the entire film might seem to turn on Miryea’s awkward intrusion into a world of homosocial sentiment, it’s her transgender attendant at the brothel who eventually helps Jay to recover and rescue her.
In other words, Jay and Miryea are collapsed into what might be described as the homosocial syntax of the film – all the thresholds between self and other that ultimately serve to separate sentiment between men from romance between men and women. While Tiburon may separate Jay and Miryea, then, this merely converges their romance with his own homosocial rapport with Jay, although the effect isn’t exactly to “expose” his rapport with Jay as “romantic,” but to instead allow Jay and Miryea to negotiate the more distended and amorphous sensuality that has animated every exchange between men throughout the film. In the strangest of ways, Tiburon’s revenge backfires precisely because it removes Jay and Miryea from any direct romantic contact, forcing them to instead occupy the more diffuse space of homosocial attachment that has driven Revenge as a whole. By precluding that contact, Tiburon forces Jay to treat Miryea like a man, while by consigning Miryea to a brothel, he also forces her to somehow dissociate Jay from direct sexual contact with men, if only because that quickly turns into such a violent and traumatic prospect. By the end, Jay and Miryea have been forced to commune as men, and yet that is the highest sensual gratification the film can envisage, as their absorption into Scott and Morrison’s homosocial textures becomes even more overwhelming than their steamiest moments together.
As a result, the second half of Revenge seems to deconstruct the first half, as if to show us all the romantic longing that lies behind the male sentiment we have seen so far, as well as the extent to that longing has been sublimated into atmosphere – the atmospheres from which Jay and Miryea become utterly indistinguishable in this second half. Yet like any gesture of sublimation, that just enhances the intensity of what is being sublimated, with the result that the more atmospheric the film becomes, the more its homosocial sentiment approaches romantic fruition, until Scott eventually comes full circle and Jay and Miryea reconnect in a final embrace. Yet this embrace, which takes place is a convent, is strangely devoid of the couple’s previous sensual intensity, and almost ascetic by comparison, as if the very moment at which they consummate the film’s homosocial sentiment is also the moment at which we realise that it was the very process of sublimation and indefinite deferral that constituted that homosocial sentiment – and the film’s gorgeous atmospherics – in the first place. In this last shot, then, Revenge reveals itself for what it really is – a male melodrama, or male weepie, with Harrison reportedly crying during the first screening of this final sequence, which itself concludes with Jay breaking into tears as the music drowns out his dialogue with Miryea in a sea of synths and the credits roll over their final embrace.
Of course, Jay is partly crying out of joy, but it also feels as if he is also crying for Tiburon, who he met in the following scene to ask for forgiveness, mourning a lost homosocial object that could never be romantically consummated, if only because it is destined to lose its sensuous intensity at the very moment of consummation. In its own way, then, Revenge beautifully elaborates the difficulty of conveying eroticism in a marketplace saturated with explicit sex, along with the difficulty of articulating male sentiment in a marketplace saturated with heteronormativity – or, rather, it recognises that the two difficulties are one and the same, as the erotic and the homosocial converge upon Scott and Tiburon’s lush atmospherics. The more absent and abstracted Tiburon becomes from his own scheme, the more he feels like a surrogate for Scott in his promulgation of a hyperreal cinema effect that demands that the camera approach it, but is destroyed as soon as the camera occupies it. While I could therefore see why Costner’s address to the camera was criticised, at the time, for being narcissistic, I also couldn’t really see how he could have addressed it any other way given the staggering atmospheric ambit of the film, which grows so diffuse that it almost demands three or four hours to properly unfold (interestingly, Scott’s director’s cut is shorter than the original by about half an hour, but also contains longer scenes).
In a strange way, that brings Revenge closer and closer to classical Hollywood, and especially classical Westerns, as the film dissociates into a series of self-contained sequences, scenes and, eventually, shots, all of which extend the contemplative gazes between men into ever more expansive and magnificently atmospheric topographies. Yet classical Hollywood also feels farther and farther away as well, with the near-continuous score remediating these splendid images into what eventually feels like a series of music videos starring Costner in one stately pose after another, until he almost feels like an icon rather than an actor, a figure rather than a corporeal presence. By the final few shots, it is as if classical Hollywood – and the language of cinema generally – has been utterly exhausted in its capacity for both erotic and homosocial communion, even or especially as the film’s nostalgia reaches its apex during these final climactic moments as well. Yet it is also nostalgia for something that has never been, and a version of classical Hollywood that never was, which is perhaps the best way Scott could have told this story and conveyed these desires on the cusp of the 90s, in one of the most convulsively and almost repulsively beautiful films of his long career.