There’s something about revenge. Death Wish, Taken, In the Bedroom,and the John Wick franchise all work from a premise of vengeance. Gangs of New York takes the long way around to revenge for the death of a father. Obviously, revenge plays a part in many other movies. (Here’s a list of 150 of them). Most recently, Best Original Screenplay at the 2021 Academy Awards went to Promising Young Woman (which Jay and I discussed for a bit on our most recent episode of Saints and Cinema), a revenge movie with some unique twists. And the current number-one movie at the box office is Nobody.
A desire for revenge is tied up with our sense of justice and of trying to make right what’s gone wrong. All the better if you’ve got a certain set of skills to make it happen, and when it is only the bad guys who get hurt. In Taken, Liam Neeson is a retired CIA agent using those skills to save his daughter from traffickers. (More recently, he essentially does the same thing as a former Marine in The Marksman, this time to save a boy from a drug cartel.) John Wick is an assassin trying to survive all the other assassins in a graphic-novel, fantasy world.
Nobody (2021; in theaters) has Bob Odenkirk as an apparently regular guy—a nobody—Hutch Mansell, who actually has John Wick or Bryan Mills-type skills that allow him to take on powerful bad guys, in this case a psychotic Russian mobster. (Nobody was written by Derek Kolstad, who also wrote the John Wick movies.) If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that he is definitely not a regular guy. But the first act of the movie portrays Hutch (at least in the eyes of those around him) as someone who is weak, afraid to get involved. He is a man who, day after day and week after week, goes to work in a mind-numbing job, comes home, forgets to take out the garbage, and then does it again. His wife and son have trouble respecting him, especially after he refuses to fight back against two home invaders.
I would guess that many men feel that sort of insecurity, and fear a lack of respect from those whom they love. Nobody highlights that, especially when Hutch’s neighbor, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all offer him advice and posture as more “manly” men. We expect Nobody to follow the typical lines of that sort of movie: a man who simply gets fed up with both the invasion of his home, and the disrespect he’s receiving, so he takes revenge on those who make him feel that way. (Other relatively recent films, including The Nightingale, Peppermint, and The Rhythm Section, focus on that theme, but heighten the disrespect and the revenge by making the leads women who have lost their families. I haven’t seen the one called, fittingly, Revenge.)
There is something, conscious or sub-conscious, in us that sees the injustice and wrong in the world, the criminals who (seemingly) get away with their crimes, and the lack of control we have over what goes on, that draws us to stories of revenge. We are not Bryan Mills, John Wick, or Hutch Mansell. We’ve never been trained by special forces. We haven’t been able to seek out a shadowy figure who can train us in the use of firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and how to kill with a finger, while providing us with different identities, cash, and passports so we can travel unhindered. These are things that happen only on the screen. These characters have the sort of control that we sometimes wish we had. They have the skills or abilities that allow them to rectify the injustices that we (think we) see. We, on the other hand, can only exercise control vicariously.
In some ways, however, Nobody reverses that tack and asks what we might do if we really did have those skills, but wished we did not. Primarily to the dead or dying, Hutch reveals various parts of his biography, all of which have been censored in the official records. We see him entering numbers on a spreadsheet and assume that when he says he was an “auditor” in the military, that he worked with financial data. Later he says that an auditor is the guy whom you least want to see at your door. When someone cannot be arrested, he says, “those three-letter agencies” sent him to “make sure there’s no one to arrest.” Because he’s Bob Odenkirk, who most recently played the slimy but resourceful lawyer using the name Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul, we believe the initial presentation of his personality. But he also makes us believe that he’s the sort of man whose bad side you’d rather not see.
Hutch, at first, does not do the sort of thing his wife, son, neighbor, and brother-in-law think he should have done to prove his manhood. While we mostly know what’s coming, there’s something unexpected about the way Hutch works hard to be a different kind of man for his family than his past proves him capable of being. And though it is a little strange that his children don’t show up in the final scene, it would be a different kind of movie if—once he’s proved he can fight and kill the bad guys— we see that his son now respects him. He appears to be a weak version of what a man “should be,” but it is in his restraint that he shows his love for his family, denying “himself.”
The tension that’s created by the first act, which explodes—literally—in the third act, sets Nobody above other action movies. This is what Rambo: Last Blood tried, and failed horrendously, to be. This is John Wick (which I very much enjoyed) with someone left to defend. This is Taken taken up a notch. In spite of the predictable, sometimes silly, but genre-necessary, warehouse scene at the end, Nobody is a revenge movie with a heart and a soul, and I am having trouble thinking of anyone except Bob Odenkirk who could have pulled it off.
I don’t know if I can reconcile the contradiction at the heart of the movie, which is inherent in the way Hutch tried to live for his family before they were threatened. At the end, is he reconciled with “who he really is,” and now he’s going to try to live out the tension between his talent for violence and his “weaker” protection of his family? Which is stronger, in both senses? What does it mean to be a man, pulled between the hyper-masculine (read: violent and insensitive) and doing what is necessary to provide and care for one’s family? For which should he be respected? What does society expect him to be?
The problem is hidden as well beneath his wife Becca’s (Connie Nielsen) character, because she seems to have the better job (as Hutch does pull-ups on a bus shelter where her realtor picture is prominent), she drives the car (while Hutch takes the bus), and she seems to be the one in control while Hutch drifts through his days. She tells him numerous times that he’s forgotten the trash. Hutch clearly wants to do something to demand his family’s respect, but his daughter gives him that love and respect simply because he’s her dad. These contradictory desires are noted by Hutch, but not fully explored. It is, at heart, an action movie, after all. But for all that, it is the best action movie I’ve seen in a long time.
In real life, we are mostly unable to control what happens to us, let alone able to take revenge against those who harm us. Christians, moreover, believe that vengeance and setting things right belong to God, who alone is righteous. And that is, of course, not the whole story, since the way that God sets things right is not by blowing away the bad guys, but by submitting to death, the very sort of weakness the world despises. His strength is made perfect in weakness, most fully on the cross. So while revenge is not ours either in this life or the life to come, there is a sort of temporary catharsis that takes place while watching films like Nobody, and—just perhaps—a hint toward the day when Someone will once and for all put things to rights.