The science of getting your own back

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

There’s a fantastic scene at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s film Death Proof. Three young girls are being hunted by Kurt Russell, a psychopath with a stunt car and a foot fetish. We have watched him torture and kill his way through the film, and, as he wends his way towards this group, their naivete is used as a foil to his ever increasing menace. In the last three minutes they beat him to death with an iron pole. It’s a great ending.

Outside Hollywood, the idea of revenge is often pushed into the background, especially when explaining our motives. We call it “justice” or “righting a wrong” or “balancing the scales”, but these notions don’t do much for us biologically, and don’t show up in an obvious way in the brain (it’s a grey area). Revenge, on the other hand, has a very clear neural signal, and that signal is pleasure.

A classic psychology scenario - the prisoner's dilemma - can be combined with neuroimaging to show this quite clearly. In the dilemma, two people have committed a crime and are being held in separate cells. They can either confess and get a reasonable sentence or blame the other, and get a light one. If both blame the other, though, they get the longest sentence of all.

In a study published in 2006, by Tania Singer at UCL, researchers asked two “prisoners” to play this out in front of an audience. Then members of the audience were then put inside fMRI machines while they witnessed each prisoner receiving electric shocks to his hands. As they watched, they showed increased activity in neural pain areas – evidence of empathy. Surprisingly, though, this empathy was present only when watching one of the “silent partners”. If a “confessor” was punished, the activity died down considerably. It looked like the brain cared much less about the pain of those who had betrayed their partner.

There was another finding that Singer didn’t expect. Watching “bad” prisoners get punished gave members of the audience pleasure: there was activation in reward-related areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and the nucleus accumbens. (This was limited to male subjects.)

So, we - or at least the men among us - get pleasure from revenge. According to similar studies, we also get activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which relates to goal planning. Revenge, then, seems to be not only a passing delight, but a craving, something we need, that we plan for. The desire increases when we are mistreated in front of others – we need to show people we’re not to be pushed around – and decreases when we’ve got more to lose by exacting it. In other words, the emotion has a logic to it.

Does it have an evolutionary function? Literature is littered with sayings about revenge and how it never pays, or is better expressed by forgiving the other person, or is exacted by “living well” (with gritted teeth). Yet our neurobiology feels otherwise. Which is right?

Well, let’s return to the prisoner’s dilemma. The dilemma itself is whether or not to trust your partner, but this issue figures only in the beginning. As the game plays out, round after round, prisoners seek petty revenge on each other, punishing the other for betraying them. Eventually, burned out, the two settle on a compromise. And this may be the lesson. Fear of retribution keeps us behaving fairly to others, making co-operation possible. This is why we love watching people get their comeuppance in Singer's test, and why we love watching Quentin Tarantino's films. Revenge is a sweet necessity.

Actress Emily Vancamp from the US drama Revenge. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times