‘Vengeance Is Mine’ Review: A Tangled Web of Human Impulse

Brooke Adams has never struck me as a “Vengeance Is Mine” sort of actor. For a title like that, you need viciousness or fury or a ripe sense of victimhood. And by 1984, the movies had never let her near anything close. Ravishment, sure. Kookiness, yeah. But not a character fleshed out enough to do vengeance. That husky voice; her sharp, sympathetic face; an innate sense of humor: She was a gentleman’s idea of a sexpot — spinning her eyeballs for Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”; coveted by Richard Gere in “Days of Heaven”; in “Cuba” all but strapped to Sean Connery, like a suicide vest.

So what a shock to see her going to town on this dramatic comedy, by Michael Roemer, about a woman who drops in on her Massachusetts family and, after a series of utterly unexpected emotional entanglements, spends the whole movie not quite dropping out. When you’ve got a great part in a fantastic movie (and this movie’s fantastic, not to mention fantastical), an actor can flesh out “sexpot” so that what she is playing is pure vibrancy.

To be fair to Adams, “Haunted” is the movie she might have thought she was at the center of. That’s what Roemer had settled on calling “Vengeance Is Mine” 38 years ago, when it never got a proper theatrical release; never got the rapturous — or even fair or serious — reviews it deserved; never, therefore, experienced the paying art-house audience that would have clogged a theater lobby arguing about what the hell they just saw. “Haunted” wound up, instead, on PBS’s “American Playhouse” with scant public awareness, let alone any kind of full-throated appreciation.

Now, it’s called “Vengeance Is Mine,” it’s playing at Film Forum, and it is there for the world to behold. And what you’ll witness is an American movie executed with a French film’s interpersonal insouciance. It still feels original, in other words — one of those movies that somebody wrote and directed (Roemer, in this case) but that feels controlled entirely, engrossingly by human impulse, lawless in its way.

Adams’ face, in the opening sequence set on a just-landed airplane, unspools a gallery of feeling — moony to rueful to glum to chagrined; and somewhere amid all of those is more mooniness (she’s made the drink cart’s acquaintance). The expressions double as musical overture, the whole movie previewed right there in one face but not given completely away. Where’s this going, I thought. Where’s she going? Where’s she coming from? Who has she left? (We don’t need a shot of the plane in the air, because Adams is clearly the one in flight.) A beauty of this movie is that Roemer doesn’t supply us with every detail. It feels simultaneously uninhibited and intensely private.

Adams’ character, Jo, has shown up, a little drunk, to spend time with the ailing, devoutly Christian snowball of a woman who adopted her, a woman who’s being moved into some kind of care facility that she seems destined to turn into an igloo. Before Jo gets to mom’s, she and her sister, Fran (Audrey Matson), pop into a diner, where a guy named Dana (Kenneth Ryan), wearing workman’s blues, gets up from a table with his wife and kids to approach her. Something’s still sparking between them in a way that permits you to think, for a moment, this is where the movie’s headed: nostalgia, old flames. But then Jo tells Fran that Dana’s the guy who got her pregnant. “No,” she corrects herself. “He’s the guy I got to get me pregnant.” She’s boasting.

The movie’s got a thrilling command of the sugar-free and a magnetic disgust of clichés. So yes: Jo tells her mother that she has located her birth mom. But no: The movie’s not about that news, either. In fact, as Jo offers a hearty apology for “the hate” between them, the adoptive mother just lays out her things as though she had no daughter, as though Jo isn’t even there.

The plot just seems to happen to Jo. Her husband, Steve (Mark Arnott), zooms into town to provide us a blast of what she’s probably fled. Their few scenes together have a bellicose zing that culminates in an act of violence that truly scared me. It’s not just the brutality she’s escaping but the possibility that she enjoys the instability. Rather than high-tail it to Seattle, where a new life appears to await, Jo remains in New England and mires herself in a different family’s tumult.

Rather than stay with Fran, she befriends and then basically moves in with the casually affluent family next door. First, a preteen named Jackie (Ari Meyers), and then Jackie’s mother, Donna (Trish Van Devere), and then Donna’s husband, Tom (Jon DeVries), who is all but begging Donna to sign the divorce papers. And you need a scene or two with Donna to understand why. She’s off. Way, way off.

What we think we’re getting, initially, with Donna is a portrait of a woman playing the sexist hand she’s been dealt, showing up at an oily gallery owner’s place, pleading with him to display some of her work. He’ll consider it if she drives him to the airport, but all he wants to talk about it whether she’s still with Tom. Then, with a mix of confidence and resignation, she goes up to his apartment — while Jackie and Jo are still in the car. And when they come down, she proceeds to insult him, racistly. So no show for her, I guess!

I don’t know how Van Devere found this performance. It’s simultaneously uptight and gone to pieces, lakeside and volcanic. It’s fearless in a way that you rarely experience in an “arty little drama.” Van Devere was married, for years, to George C. Scott, when Scott was soaring at his histrionic apogee. She knows from all-consuming performance. Because, here she is, consumed. She’s playing the loneliness and the heartbreak and the rage, and the emotional lunacy, mental breakdown and hauteur. Tom pleads with her to see a doctor. She vows she will. You worry, though, that she thinks she’s beyond help, that she can save herself, that no one can save her.

Trish Van Devere, left, with Adams. Van Devere’s performance is simultaneously uptight and gone to pieces, our critic writes.Credit…Film Desk

A bad movie — or at least a moralistic one — would’ve made Donna a blank-from-hell. She’d be out boiling bunnies or getting the same haircut as Jo. The movie would use the treads of genre filmmaking to freak us out. But Roemer works — with discreet assiduousness — to steer the movie away from the closure of a verdict; from anything familiar, too. We’re free to judge. But Roemer never does, even when the movie flirts with what, under ordinary circumstances, would be a thriller. Here, though, Donna isn’t just some misogynist apparition. She’s a love ghost.

This is a masterpiece of direction, nothing too flashy but everything true, right — for these characters, under these circumstances. Roemer hasn’t made many movies (he’s in his mid-90s now): the demure civil-rights-era powerhouse “Nothing but a Man”; the Jewish gangster farce “The Plot Against Harry”; and his documentary triptych, “Dying,” which was something of a sensation when it arrived on PBS in the late 1970s. He has always been a sort of vérité artist.

Here, though, that documentary impulse proves uncanny, particularly since Adams and Van Devere have such immediate access to every emotion. Jo’s vitality disappears for a stretch in the middle, and it’s because Donna takes the air out of every room. Yet because this is also a meaty psychological group portrait, it feels like Jo is watching this family, waiting to see what exactly she’s gotten herself into: sister to Donna, mother to Jackie, lover (more or less) to Tom. It’s a mess. But one that Roemer understands, even when Adams and Van Devere are screaming at each other like wild animals.

So what’s this movie really about? Choices, I’d say. Some of which are laughable. Sabotage. Self­­-sabotage. When Donna says that Jo is going to wind up with Tom, I thought she was being paranoid. But she was just being her clairvoyantly accusatory self.

“Vengeance Is Mine” weaves this web of mothers and daughters and God, of puritans and quiet Eastern Europeanism and “ethnics,” spun by Roemer, a German Jew who, as a boy, escaped the Holocaust on a Kindertransport train. The film’s introductory breeziness belies a literary, cinematic complexity. Barbara Taylor Bradford clothes on a John Updike body, Ingmar Bergman by way of peak Phil Donahue. The movie could commune with the profiles in mental shakiness and bourgeois angst you get from Woody Allen and Henry Jaglom. Its resurfacing brings with it the same surprise delight of discovering Kathleen Collins’s whimsical romance, “Losing Ground,” which was made in 1982 but went largely unseen until a few years ago.

In Roemer’s film, characters’ circumstances mirror and double each other yet never dovetail. Baseness and spite mar the movie’s tasteful homes and Donna’s very early-80s sense of chic. These characters are ridiculous and fascinating in the way that people are ridiculous and fascinating. Guys and their convertibles; women and their wine. Paths of destruction that leave no obvious scar. Life just goes on, in a way that feels just a touch sociopathic. Roemer isn’t kidding about the vengeance. It’s everywhere.

Vengeance is Mine
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters.