Scripting Illegal Judgments: On Revenge and Justice in Cinema

The following post was originally written as a submission for a course on Law and Popular Culture taught by Lawrence Liang and Danish Sheikh, at NLSIU, Bangalore in 2013.


“Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office.” [1]

Every law student worth that name must confront certain inevitable questions at the very outset of their legal education. What is law? And, what is justice? And when one is a week into law school, the lack of a precise answer to these questions, can be an unsettling moment, and perhaps also, a moment of absolute clarity.

Revenge is one of the most frequently recurring themes in popular drama, when ordinary citizens, who are wronged, take on the mantle of exacting personal revenge. Studying the socio-legal implications and significance of the politics of revenge, could fill several books.  There is no dearth of revenge-oriented films; a strong case can be made for the enduring cinematic appeal of the genre of revenge. However, this paper deals specifically with instances in popular film, when the citizen, decides to administer their own idea of justice, an alternate to the legal system and recourse to the law, because they feel victimized by two entities- the criminal and the law, and this results in the delivery and execution of judgments, outside the purview of the law, and more importantly, in contravention with the provisions of law.

In order to build upon this theory of alternative justice, born out of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the legal outcome, the researcher will analyse a selection of six films, based in different historical cultural contexts. Most Indian films, dealing with revenge, and wrongful convictions, deal with so many layers of injustice; including political, social and economic, that it is nearly impossible to isolate the bare failure of the legal system per se, while contextualizing the acts of revenge. Therefore, in order to build a semblance of a narrative, the samples under reflection comprise a selection of Western films which substantiate the theory of personal revenge and retribution as alternative justice when the existing system fails the individual, beginning from the most recent film to the earliest.

Revenge, Retribution and Justice

The ideals of retribution and revenge tend toward the reflection of a fundamental sense of ‘fairness, of balance and reciprocity’.  Retribution, on one hand, is the attempt to set right a wrong, within limits and in a proportional manner, akin to the ‘eye for an eye’ adage. Revenge, on the other hand, tends to right wrongs on a scale, far beyond mere proportionality.  The criminal justice system is essentially an institution of retribution, as the response to the crime is limited and proportional.[2] When somebody’s actions cause harm and pain to another, it is necessary that he pays for it. Although a punishment might not satisfy Utilitarian principles of governance, the punishment meted out to a victimizer is seen to be warranted merely as payment for the initial wrong.[3]

There exists a fundamental social assertion that the desire for revenge is unacceptable to civilized society, and that rejecting revenge is proof of civilization. According to Charles Barton, this delusion imposes a heavy cost on the victims of crime. The idea of revenge is so condemned even in legal situations, such as the discrediting of evidence given by the victim for being motivated by revenge,  that it appears as though revenge and justice are necessarily incompatible. Victims have to assert their desire for justice, as opposed to revenge, denying them personal retribution.[4]

This could probably stem from the premise that justice must be impartial. The aversion to revenge might stem from the need to not allow the victim to be the ‘judge, jury and executioner’ in their own case. However, Barton goes on to state that, although impartiality is of value, the distance and isolation, almost uninterested manner in which courtrooms administer justice, leaves victims dissatisfied with the process.[5]

Most acts of revenge in cinema occur when the legal system malfunctions, thereby giving the hero the moral license to exact revenge, without appearing ‘vulgar’. This has also been reasoned to deem from the intent to let the audience enjoy the film, and the act of revenge, without being guilty for the satisfaction, because the failed legal system, justifies the revenge, by leaving no other alternative.[6]

Since this paper deals with revenge exacted when the legal system fails, the question of the morality of such revenge must be considered. In some cases, the legal system is seen as painfully inadequate, whereas in others, the legal system as a whole fails. And in both instances, there exists a strong draw toward an alternative method. Thane Rosenbaum argues that there exists an inherent morality in revenge because there exists very little difference between justice and revenge, contrary to popular perceptions. [7]

The inherent paradox of revenge however, is that although the vision of the attacker or criminal being served with vengeance seems to be ‘deserved’ and rightful, but the larger social and mindset finds the idea of delivering revenge uncivilized and barbaric. The quintessential concept of not taking the law into your own hands, is indicative of the concept that it is the State’s duty and its duty alone to mete out punishment, in keeping with the theory of social contract.[8]

Within the genre of revenge tragedy, there is a clear distinction between murder and retributive justice; however with the assumption that a second death can right the first death, implying that blood spilt in revenge for a crime can correct the imbalance caused by the initial bloodshed. The scales must be righted. This theme forms the basis of the justice proposition in the media.[9]

While discussing cinema and justice, emphasis needs to be placed on the relevance of the maxim, “justice must be seen in order to be done”. When justice is visible, within the confines of a court of law, the judgment becomes that much more legitimate. However, because justice is not tangible, seeing justice done, is the seeing of an image associated with justice. [10]

Therefore it is necessary to examine what comprises the image of justice, to the popular perception, as well as that portrayed in cinema. For example, the visuals of the trial process are metaphorical in nature, alluding to the individual’s journey towards the ideal of justice.

The trial film-an instrument and conduit of popular legal consciousness – cultivates a desire for and perpetuates the strength of law’s authoritative endeavour by locating the promise of  law in the tenacity and proclaimed  self-possession of each  individual’.[11]

The concept of ‘memory-justice’ is intrinsic to the trial process, wherein memory ensures that crime is not forgotten, insisting upon retribution. This insistence is not founded on ideals like the upholding of democracy as much it is ensuring that justice is done, and viewed.[12] Booth questions whether memory justice results in a sense of ‘incompleteness’, because it is still not sufficiently within the ambit of law’s empire, and from one perspective, memory justice originates in an idea of revenge, or Baconian wild justice. Booth suggests that because the law judges the past in a manner that somehow does not seem to restore original balance, there is a realisation of ‘something important left undone’, in spite of the punishment meted out to the perpetrator.[13]

The following section of the paper discusses five films in light of this context, and examines how the ideal of justice, merges with revenge and retribution, all necessarily in scenarios in which the legal system has been insufficient, or failed in its entirety.

In Focus

 Law Abiding Citizen[14]

“I’m gonna pull the whole thing down. I’m gonna bring the whole ****in’ diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical.”

The film is the story of a man, Shelton Clyde, who sees his wife raped and murdered, along with his daughter within their home, and the events that follow this incident. While prosecuting the two murderers, the District Attorney, Nick Rice tells Clyde that he is accepting a plea bargain from Darby, the more vicious of the two murderers. We know that Rice wants to keep his conviction rate intact, and he tells Clyde that “some justice is better than no justice at all,” and that he does not want to risk an acquittal. He explains how Clyde’s testimony is unreliable, and the physical evidence against Darby has been excluded. Darby’s plea and sentence for three years is the best arrangement possible. [15] Rice’s response to Clyde’s protests about how Rice knows that both defendants are guilty, is telling, and representative of the quintessential lawyer psyche-“It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove in court.”

The rest of the film is a sequence of horrific violent actions that Clyde Shelton takes avenging the killers of his family, and the legal system which denied him justice. He makes the accomplice killer die a slow, painful death and especially kills Darby by cutting him into pieces while filming the entire act. Salzmann explains how had these two killings been the end, Clyde’s closure could be seen as an extraction of revenge, and the gaining of revenge that the legal system denied him. However, Clyde also goes on to exact revenge against the very legal system itself.

When Rice arrests Clyde, Clyde represents himself, and uses fake precedent in order to secure bail. When the judge grants him bail, he mocks the judge for being stupid, and he vocally reiterates the legal system’s woeful inadequacies.  Clyde goes on to perpetrate, further acts of annihilation against the judge, the DA’s staff, Darby’s attorney, and other people from the department of justice.[16]

According to film critic Maryann Johanson, Law Abiding Citizen represents an ‘unpleasant streak that runs through the American zeitgeist today, the one that took root after 9/11’ which takes away the very elements that make America, what it is,  like Constitutional values, and the rule of law, to save America itself. While Shelton is enraged at the legal system for not being able to guarantee maximum punishment for wrongdoers, the district attorney, Rice is frustrated at with the system which has to sometimes, let the guilty go free because it is intended primarily to protect innocents rather than punish the guilty. [17] Why the two intents are divergent is a different debate in itself.

It is important to note, that Clyde would have accepted the judgment of the court had the case gone to trial. He wanted to have a voice in court, and the ‘principle behind the trial was more important than either judicial economy or a half-measure punishment.’ Law Abiding Citizen is  based in the public’s lack of confidence in the justice system.[18]

However, if the film is a story of a citizen who penetrates the social contract, and reinstates power in himself, away from those who have abused it, by perpetrating miscarriage of justice, who takes back a power he believes has been given up to those in charge, the violence that Clyde undertakes in a near psychopathic manner is the kind of behaviour that ends up giving more power to those in charge to control individual rights, as is seen by the district attorney’s response to concerns about Clyde’s civil rights in custody- ‘F*** his civil rights’.[19]

Law Abiding Citizen thus involves the warped nature of the justice meted out by plea bargains, the subsequent revenge by victims, and for retribution that not only defy the principle of proportionality, but have the power to destroy the very legal system that is meant for safeguarding public life.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [20]

Image result for sweeney toddThey all deserve to die. Because in all of the human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one staying put in his proper place, and one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett! Look at you! No, we all deserve to die! Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!”

Sweeney Todd, is a historical character infamous for his murderous razor as a barber, and has been interpreted, over the years, by several writers. The law and lawyers specifically have always been viewed from a negative perspective in the many versions of Sweeney Todd that have appeared in fiction, theatre and cinema. In the film under discussion, English director Tim Burton uses satire to place the legal system and rule of the law, in London as being corrupt and destructive, something that Sweeney Todd’s character aims to violently remedy.

A certain Judge Turpin abuses his power, wrongfully deporting Todd to Australia, and then rapes Todd’s wife, and uses the law to appoint himself the guardian of Johanna, who is Todd’s daughter. Turpin’s character is painted to be not only unjust and corrupt, but pure evil, as in the instance when Turpin sentences a child to death.

When he transforms into an absolute mass murderer, Todd announces his intent to kill his victims, thus: “The vermin of the world inhabit it [London]-But not for long!”  Although it seems that Todd’s resolve of murder is not entirely a desire for revenge. Instead, ‘it rests upon his moral judgment of the deserved lot of all mankind’.[21]

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is coldly overwhelmed by disenchantment with the system that ruined his life, family, and irrevocably destroyed his naivety. His rage and desire for vengeance is shown more as a by product of the legal system than the fuel to the murders he commits. Burton tries to make the audience identify with his violent protagonist, seemingly questioning whether we are blameless when our legal system unfairly and wrongly punishes.[22]

This film touches upon corruption, wrongful and mala-fide convictions, wrongful use of the law to serve personal ends, and generally an entire system which proves itself capable of destroying a man’s life, and being the cause of turning him into a mass-murderer. It explores whether when, the law fails, and a victim seeks vengeance, the extreme nature of that vengeance is also an indication of the magnitude of the systemic fault. However, as in all tragedies, it has an ending in which the protagonist too, suffers the fate of the antagonists. The fact that Todd mistakenly kills his wife, and the love of his life, believing her to be dead, the futility and waste of his vengeance comes through. The fact that Todd out to purge London of evil, linked with vengeance for wife’s death, ends up killing his wife and is killed himself, seems to be indicate the ultimate failure of revenge to achieve justice, and that is one of the several reasons why I believe Sweeney Todd to be one of the most relevant cinematic commentaries on the jurisprudence of justice.


Unforgiven, self-explanatorily is a tale of memory and forgiveness; intrinsically linked with retribution, the issue of proportional justice, and as is wont, the inadequacy of the legal system. William Munny is a reformed killing cowboy, and at the onset of the film, we are shown how financial trouble leads to him deciding to go back to his killing ways, in lieu of a rather large bounty on the head of two cowboys for cutting the face of a sex worker in the town of Big Whisky.

The legal system is represented by Little Bill, the town sheriff and he sentences the two cowboys to whipping as punishment for the atrocity against the sex worker. This punishment is seen as inadequate by both the sex workers, and the owner of the brothel for different reasons. The sex workers do not deem whipping to being a just enough punishment for the ‘gruesome’ and permanently nature of the crime. The brothel owner, on the other hand is dissatisfied with the punishment because of the economical loss he faces with the scarred face of the concerned victim, and is therefore satisfied when he is awarded two ponies as compensation. Therefore, the sex workers decide to have justice administered they way, they deem fit, and announce the bounty on the perpetrators’ heads.

There exist two branches of revengeful justice in this film. One is that of the sex workers, in order to avenge their colleague’s predicament by deciding to pay for the killing of the attackers, a punishment clearly far beyond the scope of proportional justice. The second branch is when Munny’s friend Ned is killed by Little Bill, and  Munny avenges Ned’s death by killing Little Bill, a more direct and proportional retribution than the first. Moreover, another interesting aspect of the film is

This theme is perfectly portrayed through Eastwood’s character who himself is cynical of justice in the world. He says the incongruous line of “deserves got nothing to do with it” to Little Bill just before killing him as revenge for killing Ned, something Munny clearly did feel he deserved. Munny has developed this contemptuous stance towards justice through the events of his own life. A onetime ruthless killer of women and children, “the fact that no one ever brought him to justice for his past evil deeds, makes him think the delivery of justice purely random, a matter of luck.” [24]

Lipstick [25]

The film deals with the rape of a successful model, by a struggling musician, and the events that follow. After a musician, Gordon forces himself upon the model Chris McCormick, and rapes her in her room, the end of the act is witnessed by Chris’ thirteen year old sister Kathy. After the violent ordeal is over, and Gordon leaves, Chris reports the incident to the police. Chris’ attorney- Carla explains to her how conviction in rape cases is very low, and her best chance to get a conviction is to take the stand herself.

The film shows, how in the trial, a victim of rape “must overcome the prejudices of a society that always suspects that such a rape victim got what she asked for…Anne Bancroft, appearing as the ferociously determined lawyer for the victim, presents the case not only for Miss Hemingway, but also for all women.”[26]

In the trial, although Chris testifies in earnest truth, and despite the protestations to the effect that doing so will damage her career, the jury holds in favour of the acquittal because they are convinced by the defence counsel’s contention that the sex was consensual, and a result of Chris’ desires. Moreover, the defence also argues that even if it was not consensual, it was provoked by her, because she first appeared naked at the photo-shoot when the rapist saw her, and the overarching sexual nature of the photographs that a part of Chris’ profession.

After being laid off from work, at her last shoot, Gordon chases after Kathy, and rapes her. When Kathy tells Chris of what happened, Chris runs after Gordon’s car and shoots at him. She continues shooting at him, across his body, long after he’s dead, recalling the memories of her rape. After the police arrest her, Carla Bondi argues before the jury as to how Chris took the law into her own hands, because the law had failed her in the past. She is acquitted of the crime, so as to prevent the display of the failure of the justice department.

This films is important primarily because it exposes the failings of the jury system a system specifically in place to avoid individual bias, and partiality. The fact that a jury is easily convinced by the reasoning that surely the model is to blame for her rape, which in fact must have been consensual, merely because she is a model highlights how social prejudices and biases of juries are actively exploited by the case for the defence, especially for victim blaming in cases of sexual violence. Although Chris is denied justice in her case, when her sister is raped by the same individual, a man acquitted by the court, for that very offence, Chris decides that she will have to administer justice herself, if she wants to see justice done at all. We are shown the cold fury, evoked by the memories of her rape, as she empties bullets into Gordon, to attain closure, and revenge, and fundamentally, an alternative form of justice.  Also, the fact that the court later acquits her of killing Gordon, is akin to the legal system acknowledging the existence and rightfulness of this alternative form of justice.

King of the Pecos[27]

The film, made in the mid 1930s, is a quintessential ‘western film’ or what could be referred to as a ‘cowboy film’, starring Joseph Kane. At the outset, a ruthless businessman Stiles, accompanied by his lawyer Brewster and his employee Ash, gain control over important watering holes between the cattle markets in Kansas and Texas, to achieve their business ends. One of the watering holes-Sweetwater, is owned by a man, who lives there with his wife and son.  Stiles offers a thousand dollars to the man, in exchange for the land, and he refuses. Stiles’ men shoot him and his wife, beating up the boy and leaving him for dead. Ten years later, the boy who did not die, grows up to be a lawyer, and represents a class action by cattle owners, to challenge Stiles’ control over the watering holes, wherein the Court holds that, Stiles is only entitled to one of his water hole claims, only of Sweetwater. The classic irony of this judgment is an interesting one from the perspective of revenge. The fact that Clayborn, the lawyer, instituted the suit, motivated by the murder of his parents, and the subsequent occupation of their land, and the court holding that of all of Stiles’ illegal claims, only Clayborn’s land is legally Stiles’. The audience is therefore shown a very clear, heavy failure of the legal system, and its ability to deliver justice with accuracy, and fairness, although a larger look at the case, shows how the class action has been a successful suit.

After losing the suit, Stiles decided to use force, and orders that all the ranchers’ cattle be gathered, and Clayborn in response gathers the ranchers into a cattle drive. When the drive passes through Sweetwater, and Stiles refuses access, Clayborn and the others kill Stiles and the killer Ash in exactly the same manner in which Stiles had had Clayborn’s parents murdered those many years ago. The movie ends with Clayborn’s avenging of his parents’ murders, and the movie underlines how ‘he needed to use force beyond law in order to extract’ [28] that revenge.

The film is an extremely relevant commentary, because the victim, is also a part of the legal system, meant to deliver justice, as a lawyer, and the fact that Clayborn chooses to avenge his parents’ murders initially by destroying Stiles’ capitalist empire, by means of a legal suit, is an indication of how, even as a victim, Clayborn has ultimate faith in the legal system to do justice. However, when that legal system fails him personally, while technically upholding the cause he has represented as a lawyer, then the element of personal retribution enters. Still, the killing of Stiles is still in retaliation to the force Stiles exerts over his titled land- Sweetwater, but, in that instance the fact that Clayborn kills Stiles, at the place where he murdered his parents, in a manner reminiscent of the same, shows how although there is an element of direct proportion to his retribution, Clayborn, despite being a lawyer, has had to go beyond the law, and physically kill his victimizer in order to attain a sense of justice.


There exists a strong argument to support why punishment need contain an element of suffering in order to be considered just, therefore the social desire for revenge or such suffering, cannot be considered immoral, that a desire for such suffering is a reflection of the desire for justice. Although actual punishment follows the principle of proportionality, it still does not exclude the desire for suffering as an essential component of that punishment. [29]One perspective is that there is a need for legal systems to acknowledge ‘a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged’.

The concept of plea bargains therefore, as seen in Law Abiding Citizen, undercut this need of the victim, and therefore, it has been suggested that it is necessary to somehow involve the victim in the plea bargaining process, because it is a crime against the victim, along with being a crime against the public at large.[30] The film explores the possibility of how an innocent man takes to extreme violence, cruelty almost matching that of his original perpetrator, not only to avenge his daughter and wife’s deaths, but to unconditionally avenge the lawyer, and the criminal justice system, which allowed the perpetrator to be set free, under a mask of justice. In Sweeney Todd, the idea of the law itself being represented by morally corrupt agents, as keepers of law and justice is an interesting angle as to why an ordinary, innocent citizen takes the law into his own hands, by means of his razor, specifically, in order to not only take revenge against the people responsible for his fate, but also to cold-bloodedly remove ‘evil’ men from the setup. In Unforgiven we see proportionality and the lack thereof while alternative justice is being administered in two separate instances. Lipstick displays the inherent failings of the jury system, and the consequences of wrongful acquittal, while highlighting the need for personal retribution as the ultimate, albeit last resort justice for the victim. King of the Pecos is a study in the finer nuances of personal justice, when individual justice is not in accordance with the communal justice meted out, and how a lawyer resorts to taking the law in his hands.

Thus,  a variety of settings in which the explicit and underlying theme is the failure of the legal system, paving the need for individual retribution, is indicative of how in fact the idea of justice, the theory of justice, and its practical and moral link with revenge and retribution is a jurisprudential question that merits deeper consideration, not only while understanding the films, but in understanding our criminal system, and decide whether the justice we aim for, is vengeance, retribution, or restoration. At a moment in time, when the Indian polity struggles to ideologically defend and oppose the sentencing and capital punishment for the offences of terrorism and rape, answering the question of what justice entails, and what justice is wanted, and what justice is necessary, is crucial.



[1] Francis Bacon, Of Revenge in The Essays or Cousels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Ld. Verulam Viscount St. Albans and The New Atlantis 14, (Jim Manis ed., 2007).

[2] Howard Zehr, What do Restorative Justice and Revenge Have in Common? (June 11, 2009), Restorative Justice, available at, (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[3] Steven Eisenstat, Revenge, Justice and Law: Recognising the Victim’s Desire for Vengeance as a Justification for Punishment 50(4) Wayne Law Review 1, 23 (2005).

[4] Charles K. Barton, Getting Even: Revenge as a Form of Justice, xv. (1999).

[5] Id. at xvi.

[6] Dean Hitesman, Setting the Stage for Justice in Revenge Genre Films, Picturing Justice (February 10, 2005), available at (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[7] Thane Rosenbaum, Justice? Vengeance? You Need Both, The New York Times (July 27, 2011), available at (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[8] Id.

[9] Sara Elizabeth Rowe, The Scales of Justice: Revenge and Forgiveness in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy, 19 (Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Wesleyan University-The Honors College, 2008) [unpublished].

[10] Dennis E. Curtis & Judith Resnik, Images of Justice 96 Yale Law Journal 1727, 1729 (1987).

[11] Jessica Silbey, Patterns of Courtroom Justice, 28 (1) Journal of Law and Society 97, 116 (2001).

[12] W. James Booth, The Unforgotten: Memories of Justice, 95(4) The American Political Science Review 777, 779 (2001).

[13] Id.  at 786.

[14] Overture Films, Law Abiding Citizen (2009).

[15] Victoria S. Salzmann, The Film Law Abiding Citizen: How Popular Culture is Poisoning People’s Perceptions 41 South Western Law Review 119, 138 (2011).

[16] Id.,at 139.

[17] Maryann Johanson, Law Abiding Citizen (Review) (October 15, 2009), Flick Filosopher, available at, (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[18] Salzmann, supra note 15 at 140.

[19] Johanson, supra note 17.

[20] Warner Bros. Pictures, Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

[21] Alfred Mollin, Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd, 9(4) American Music 405, 406 (1991).

[22] Michelle Lipinski, Who You Calling Cutthroat? The Legal System, Legal Responsibility, and Sweeney Todd (February 20, 2008), Oxford University Press Blog, available at, Last visited on February 23, 2013.

[23] Warner Bros. Pictures, Unforgiven (1992).

[24] William I. Miller, Clint Eastwood and Equity: Popular Culture’s Theory of Revenge. in Law in the Domain of Culture 161, 195 (A. Sarat and T. Kearns eds., 2000).

[25] Paramount Pictures, Lipstick  (1976).

[26] Vincent Canby, The Screen: ‘Lipstick’: Glamorous Film About Raped Model Arrives, The New York Times (April 3, 1976),  available at (Last visited on February 23, 2013).

[27] King of the Pecos (1936).

[28] Hitesman, supra note 6.

[29] Eisenstat, supra note 3.

[30] Rosenbaum, supra note 7.



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