During its earliest scenes, “Prevenge” (2016) sort of tricks us into identifying and sympathizing with the protagonist Ruth. Even as she exposes herself to us as a serial killer, while we’re still struggling to understand the reasons behind these murders that we witness her committing, we feel at some level as if her victims have it coming. The pet store owner and DJ Dan are creepy, awful people. They seem to bear out the truth of the voice in Ruth’s head, the one telling her that “people are inherently evil” and they all deserve to die.
Part of the genius of this film by writer-director (and lead actor) Alice Lowe is that even while she’s committing murders, Ruth still seems like the consumate victim, incapable of resisting the blood-thirsty commands of her unborn child. It’s only as we come to realize the voice she hears in her head may in fact be her own psychotic impulses that our sympathies start to become more complicated. Our vexed attitudes to Ruth become especially strained once she kills Josh, the kind roommate who wasn’t even involved in the earlier mountaineering incident for which she is putatively exacting her revenge. When she’s willing to kill “innocent” people, Ruth’s behavior becomes more and more difficult to rationalize. The notion that all people are evil would seem to apply more accurately to creeps than to nice guys.
We like to imagine that babies and children are completely innocent. In fact, “innocent” can even be used as a synonymous noun meaning an infant or child. However, children are always born into a world where things are complicated, where many wrongs remain unrighted. Even if we try to spare them, children gain language and consciousness in a world full of unresolved conflicts, where evil threatens them from every quarter. To be completely innocent is to be entirely vulnerable. Even if babies aren’t born evil, they are immediately and urgently selfish. They wail when their needs are not met. As they grow up, they quickly have to develop survival instincts. Again, these responses need not be viewed as “evil” but they are at some level selfish and indifferent to the wellbeing of others.
While “Prevenge” doesn’t finally force us to decide whether people are inherently evil or not, this film definitely complicates the problem of human evil by (at least seemingly) giving voice and agency to an unborn child. For me, this is where the movie really resonates with the Greek tragedies it so clearly drew upon for inspiration. Like Orestes and the other plays of Aeschylus, “Prevenge” seems more concerned with raising provocative ethical problems than with finding tidy answers to them.
What are we to do with our anger and our grief when someone responsible for the death of a loved one has been inadequately punished, or worse yet exonerated? If the law is satisfied, must we accept its judgment when that doesn’t feel just?
And this lingering problem is why I think the final moments of the film seem to undermine the apparent resolution of moments before. Yes, there is some cheeky humor to the surprise twist, but I think Ruth’s sudden change in the final moments might also suggest that even once we have apparently come to terms with our grief and to feel like we’ve moved beyond it, we can still encounter people or circumstances that will trigger a violent grief response again.
As we learned from “The Babadook” earlier in this film series, that “grief monster” never really goes away for good. We just have to tame it, make peace with it, and learn to live with it the best we can.