Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On a Train is a novel about repressed homosexuality and masculine panic—a queer author’s bleak exploration of the landscape of paranoia and self-loathing. It’s piercingly observed, often funny, and always deeply uncomfortable. But it is not, in any sense, a happy or liberating book.
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Do Revenge is billed as a subversion of Strangers on a Train because it switches the protagonists from adult men to teen girls. But the real transformation is in mood. There are black comedic elements here for sure, but—mostly for better, with maybe a hint of for worse—this is not really a mean-spirited movie. It likes its characters in a way Highsmith never liked hers; it skewers them, but only with love.
The film is set (like many a teen classic) in an elite private high school. Whip-smart, stunningly dressed Drea Torres (Camila Mendes) is the queen of the school. She hangs with the school’s wealthy elite in-crowd, even though she herself is a scholarship student and the daughter of a nurse.
Drea is heading towards Yale and then Harvard Law with the determination of a guided missile. But then she sends a topless video of herself to her boyfriend, school king Max (Austin Abrams). The video is leaked, she blames Max, and her life and future disintegrate.
Enter downbeat schlubby, decidedly uncool lesbian dork Eleanor (Maya Hawke). She befriends the down-on-her-luck Drea, and tells her about her own miserable traumatic outing. In camp when she was 13 she came out to a girl, Carissa (Ava Capri) who she says betrayed her, outed her, and branded her a predator. As it happens, Carissa goes to their school too.
The two decide (per Highsmith’s novel and the Hitchcock movie of the same name) that they can help each other get revenge by switching targets. Drea will destroy Carissa. And then, Eleanor will destroy Max. No one will find out because everyone thinks they don’t know each other.
One of the best parts of the film is its clear-eyed depiction of patriarchal power and double standards. Drea explains, with an almost gleeful bitterness, that it will be easy for her to destroy Carissa, because everyone is always just waiting to destroy women. Taking down Max is much harder because men, and especially rich men, are allowed, and even encouraged to get away with everything.
Teen Girls Will Destroy You
In exploring the ins and out of patriarchy and its opponents, the film takes a doubled path. Over here, it’s a rom-comish celebration of a budding friendship, as Drea and Eleanor grow closer despite their differences, which they find out maybe aren’t such differences after all. Over there, though, the movie is a suspense tale, all twists, betrayals, and ugly reveals.
The rom-com/suspense dynamics work pretty well on the level of plot. Director Robinson manages to hit all the beats of both genres while weaving them around each other, which is quite a technical feat. And thematically, the duality is a knowing metaphor for teen girl relationships, half effusive, passionate attachment, half Machiavellian death pit.
When it gets to character, though, things get a little trickier. Mendes and Hawke are both wonderful actors, and they are clearly having the time of their lives shifting from vicious conniving supervillains to vulnerable heartthrobs in the blink of a camera cut.
Robinson doesn’t quite manage to turn those wonderful moments into coherent psychological progression though. Highsmith’s novel was a deep dive into psychic misery. There’s misery on display in Do Revenge for sure, but the need to get from plot point to plot point keeps it mostly on the surface. The movie asks you to keep changing your understanding of the characters, rather than building on what came before.
But Then Maybe Teen Girls Won’t Destroy You After All
Perhaps inevitably given all these intricacies of narrative and character, the conclusion of the movie feels too easy. The darker currents inherited from Highsmith are mostly set aside. It doesn’t go for the jugular—or at least, it takes care to only go for the right jugulars.
This isn’t exactly a bad thing. Following Highsmith more closely would have meant leaning further into hatred of teen girls and female friendships, and there’s plenty of that in pop culture already. It might also have meant exploring the possible sexual tension between the main characters more fully. The movie does show a different lesbian relationship with a fair bit of screentime and some nuance, though, which seems like a reasonable substitute.
On its own merits, Do Revenge is a smart, well-acted, thoughtful and entertaining revamping of John Hughes-era teen comedies with more feminism and much less homopohbia. For Highsmith fans, though, it does feel a little weird to transform a Kafkaesque narrative about baffled rage, desire, and obsession into an empowerment fantasy.
But that’s Hollywood. The mainstream has done worse, and will again. When you look at the travesty that was Netflix’s recent Persuasion, it’s hard not to wish more adaptations were undertaken with Do Revenge’s intelligence and heart—and with its determination to make its story its own.
Rating 7.3 SPECS
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.