Revenge movies have largely gone the way of the zombie film in recent years; they are overdone to the point of tedium and it requires a picture of high quality to elevate itself above the dross. I Saw The Devil does just this.
With the sub-genre having been debased to the very formulaic structure of: Act One being half-an-hour of prolonged murder, Act Two being the attempt to capture the antagonist and Act Three being half-an-hour of bloody revenge; I Saw The Devil proves beyond doubt that you don’t need an original plot to produce an intelligent and engaging film, if you structure it in an interesting way. It is atmospheric and beautifully shot, and once the viewer is immersed to the point that they trust the competence of the director, the actions of the characters become enjoyably unpredictable. This is executed by fine acting from the two leads.
With a commendable freshness, Director Jee-woon Kim deftly weaves this familiar tale – of the bereaved husband seeking revenge for the murder of his pregnant wife. Whilst it is undeniably violent, the film never once feels gratuitous. Recognising the need to effectively vilify his serial killer antagonist, Kim avoids the pitfalls of lesser filmmakers by eschewing lingering scenes of women being murdered, yet skilfully creates his villain by showing the intense, merciless fervour with which he slaughters. Thus, each of the killer’s actions shock and offend the viewer anew, rather than serving to desensitise.
I Saw The Devil does not feel long at a 2.5 hour running time. This is achieved by interspersing the main story arc, of pursuit and revenge, with an interesting focus on the emotions and motivation of several of the characters. There are moments of black comedy and some well executed action sequences that would not be out of place in a more mainstream film. Kim defies our expectations by having the antagonist ensnared repeatedly – only to be released to prolong the hunt.
It is the exploration of the nature of revenge that raises I Saw The Devil above the norm. It functions to examine revenge as a base emotion and what this ultimately achieves. Does revenge simply become a convenient obsession to distract from grief, and if so, what happens should revenge be realised or not? Kim addresses this theme successfully without it encroaching on the plot or ever being condescending.
I Saw The Devil is disturbing, entertaining and thought-provoking. It remains unpredictable to the end, despite feeling very familiar. Jee-woon Kim creates a world with a palpable sense of threat and obsession, which is not only a beacon in a tired and lazy revenge sub-genre, but the new standard for all modern horror thrillers.