Revenge is not an art for the forgetful. To enjoy revenge drama, you need to relish the struggle between a will to remember and a desire to forget. Four hundred years ago that tension generated revenge tragedy.1 This essay brings the memory of that old theatrical genre to bear on three of its cinematic heirs: The Debt Collector (Anthony Neilson, 1999), The Boondock Saints (Troy Duffy, 1999), and The Man Who Sued God (Mark Joffe, 2001). I contend that these three films remember and recycle early modern conceptions of revenge in order to dramatize a contemporary thinking through of the idea of the father.2 The question I ask is, "Why this, now?" What does revenge tragedy have to offer the contemporary cinematic father? My answer is that these films disinter elements of revenge tragedy and use them to explore potentialities of father's role in the post-backlash era. The father takes up retributive projects as remediation for having been "stiffed."3
All three films foreground the shortcomings, failings, and hypocrisies of the law.4 Billy Connolly stars in all of them as a father who affronts the law in some way: through revenge, vigilantism, or the perversion of legal practice.5 Each film links its central challenge to the law with a project for protecting or restoring the prestige of the father. The affront to the law is direct in both The Debt Collector and The Boondock Saints: the father becomes embroiled in revenge and vigilantism. In The Man Who Sued God the confrontation is more oblique: the father brings a novel and impertinent lawsuit that interrogates a fundamental premise on which the authority of state power rests, namely that the law claims to interpret God's will. These films constitute a minicycle about "retributive paternity" that forms a coda to a much larger cycle of revenge films I have described elsewhere.6
To demonstrate that these films constitute a cycle, we need only recall their plots. The Debt Collector is an "intensely depressive" drama, in which Connolly plays Nickie Dryden, who collects repayments for loan sharks (Paviour 90). Famous for his ruthlessness, he specializes in extracting pounds of flesh from debtors' relatives if cash is unforthcoming. Dryden, however, is not the only "debt collector" in the film. Keltie (the police officer who first arrested Dryden) emerges as a contender for the title. The narrative is concerned less with Dryden's original crimes than with what happens after he is released from an eighteen-year prison sentence. Apparently a reformed man, he becomes a fashionable artist and marries well, moving up the social ladder and becoming a stepfather. But Keltie regards Dryden's "reform" as irrelevant, because his life after prison is manifestly a reward rather than a punishment. Keltie determines to collect on a debt he regards as still underpaid, namely Dryden's "debt to society." Keltie mounts a campaign of public humiliation that escalates into a violent vendetta. Dryden loses his grip on reform and reluctantly responds in kind. Retaliatory violence escalates almost by accident, damaging both men's families. Finally, Keltie ambushes Dryden with a knife, but he loses the fight and dies. Dryden is tried for new crimes, and although he is again released, this time he has paid dearly: his stepson has died and his wife has become estranged. As Keltie warned Dryden, "All she'll see when she looks at you is fear, and pain, and loss."
In The Debt Collector, the men who turn to revenge are unseated and discredited by it, and the vengeful father emerges as "a character upon whom you'd wish all the harm in the world" (Kelly 44). Of the three movies considered here, The Debt Collector depicts revenge in the starkest, most unprepossessing fashion, and the father's recourse to it is condemned. As Richard Kelly says, "this film is not on the side of the redemptive angels" (44).
By contrast with The Debt Collector's gritty "sociological" realism, The Boondock Saints enthusiastically restores a camp glamour to vigilantism, embedding the father who takes the law into his own hands in a stylized and surreal fantasia. …