An unidentified object sends ripples across the surface of a lake at the start of Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, and in the two hours it takes the movie to loop back to that crucial moment, we see another set of shockwaves, set forth by a bank robbery in a bucolic Austrian country town. The robbery is committed by Alex (Johannes Krisch), a proletariat lug working for a cheap-suited pimp in Vienna’s red-light district, who dreams of absconding to Ibiza with a Ukranian call girl (Irina Potapenko) equally eager to escape from the pimp’s thuggish clutches. It is, Alex says, in the way of all movie small-timers trying to get rich quick, a foolproof heist—and so it might be, were it not for Robert (Andreas Lust), the provincial cop who happens to be patrolling the street where Alex illegally parks his stolen getaway car, and who fires the fateful shot that violently upends Alex’s perfect plan.
Alex takes cover at his elderly grandfather’s nearby farm, which turns out to abut the property of Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss)—a coincidence that might have seemed like a cheap provocation in a lesser film, but which Spielmann deploys with the cool inevitability of a Greek tragedian. It’s the untidiness of human relationships, however, more than the moral reckoning that drives Revanche, which was one of the few deserved nominees in the forlorn Foreign Language category at the last Academy Awards. As Alex seethes with vengeful thoughts, he finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Susanne, and soon realizes that he is not the botched robbery’s only collateral victim. The shooting and its ensuing investigation has also taken its toll on Robert, and in turn formed fissures in his marriage—or maybe (as an empty upstairs nursery suggests) magnified ones that were already there. When cop and robber finally meet again, it is not in a violent standoff, but rather a dialectic.
Directed with terrific control and economy of means by Spielmann—a film and theater vet who has had only one previous movie distributed in the U.S.—Revanche gets its hooks into you early and leaves them there, alternately suggesting a darkly romantic film noir in the vein of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (which navigates a similar journey from seedy urbanism to lyric countryside), a Strindbergian chamber play opened up for the great outdoors, and a Jacobean revenge drama stripped of its ceremonial bloodshed. Working with the cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, Spielmann favors fixed, spacious compositions, in which the action often drifts to the far corners of the frame, until we find ourselves craning our necks as if to peer around the edges of the screen. He’s also marvelous with actors, particularly Krisch, a stage performer playing his first major screen role here. An intensely physical presence, Krisch can make vivid business out of scaling a wall or somersaulting across a bed to answer the door, but he is even more adept at registering the rage and resignation that pass behind Alex’s eyes as he stares out into the horizon, weighing his fate.