For the Sake of Vicious, a collaboration between Canadian genre-benders Gabriel Carrer (The Demolisher, 2015) and Reese Eveneshen (Defective, 2017), is a brutally violent, riotously entertaining and utterly unpredictable exploration of vigilante justice and social power dynamics – albeit one with an ambiguous message. Our Culture reviews the film here for its selection as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
The film opens as nurse Romina (Lora Burke) leaves work on what should be a normal Halloween night – with no other plans than to pick up her son and take him trick or treating. But she arrives at her modest home to find it occupied by the frantic Chris (Nick Smyth), who is holed up there with a revolver and the badly beaten Alan (Colin Paradine) – Romina’s wealthy landlord and the man Chris believes is responsible for the rape of his young daughter some years before. As Chris tries to force a confession out of Alan by any means necessary, Romina attempts to keep him alive – but the situation is complicated when a group of masked men descend on the house, and soon things spiral completely out of control.
For the Sake of Vicious is very much a film of two halves; the first is a grippingly tense three-hander that takes place almost entirely in Romina’s claustrophobic kitchen, largely carried by three impressive central performances. Burke – best known as the star of Justin McConnell’s festival favourite Lifechanger (2018) – is excellent, deftly communicating Romina’s steadfast determination to stay calm in extreme circumstances; Smyth imbues Chris with a potent mixture of guilt, sadness and rage, a pressure cooker that might explode at any time; and Paradine – considering the nature of the crime Alan is being accused of – delivers a surprisingly sympathetic turn, ensuring that the line between heroes and villains in Carrer and Eveneshen’s scenario is constantly blurred.
This early section of the film recalls the likes of Big Bad Wolves (2013) and Prisoners (2013) as it asks difficult questions about the validity of vigilante justice in situations where proper forces of arbitration seem to have failed, and (for better or worse) refrains from offering any real answers. As accusations are thrown backwards and forwards between Chris and Alan, it’s never entirely clear where our sympathies should lie, nor exactly how we should feel when Chris’s threats escalate into violence. Romina is our central point of identification; her sole concern is with trying to negotiate some kind of resolution that doesn’t result in further bloodshed.
Unfortunately for Romina, though, the blood arrives in buckets in the film’s second half – a non-stop parade of pure genre thrills packed to the rafters with hammers, crowbars, knives, guns and toilet lids, all realised with sanguinary practical effects and set to a pulsating synth score composed by Carrer himself. It must be noted that the film switches gear with very little warning, and the tonal shift is admittedly jarring – but what follows is so riotously entertaining that it’s hard to care: a visceral explosion of utter mayhem with shades of Carpenter, Refn and Zahler, all the more impressive for the film’s limited budget.
Vicious doesn’t settle down again until its final minutes, when it is difficult not to return to the question of what it all means. In many ways, this is a film that remixes the themes of its directors’ best-known features. After all, Carrer’s The Demolisher is a throwback to the likes of Death Wish (1974), The Exterminator (1980), Fighting Back (1982) and Vigilante (1983), a morally ambiguous movie entirely concerned with the slippery distinction between righteous justice and self-destructive revenge. In fact, even more so than the earlier film, Vicious could conceivably be accused of endorsing vigilantism, especially as it gleefully revels in exceptionally graphic scenes.
However, it is interesting that the film’s violence is largely directed at men of considerable wealth and influence (or, in other words, those who can seemingly do whatever they please without ever facing retribution); a similar theme is also central to Eveneshen’s dystopian meditation on corporate corruption, Defective. Romina and Chris – ordinary working people who are primarily motivated by a desire to do right by their children – are juxtaposed with Alan, a clearly very powerful man who does business with some extremely unsavoury characters. The film seems to hint that both he and they need to be taught that they might not be quite as untouchable as they think they are – an all-too-relevant theme in 2020.
Thematically, then, this is ultimately a film about class and power dynamics that might frustrate some viewers in its refusal to definitively offer answers to the ethical questions it poses – but that frustration is likely to be undone by the fact that Vicious is nothing if not ridiculously entertaining: a nail-biting exercise in suspense that suddenly descends into skull-crunching chaos.