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Vengeance and Dumb Brute: Animals as Object, Instruments, and Agents of Revenge in American Genre Cinema

by Isaac Rooks

From classic tragedies to modern thrillers, the desire for revenge offers an easy-to-understand justification for melodrama. The most familiar iteration of this scenario features one human targeting another. Still, the more played-out a situation becomes, the more innovation becomes a necessity. One simple tweak available to tales of revenge is the introduction of non-humans. What if a human seeks revenge against an animal? What if an animal seeks vengeance on a human? What if an animal becomes an instrument in a revenge plot? These adjustments do more than simply add an element of novelty. They raise important points about the relationship of humans to the natural world, and may therefore have a role to play in ecocritical discussions within the humanities.

This article offers a brief overview of the critical work that can be facilitated by these unconventional revenge narratives in their various guises. These texts often depend upon traditional divisions between humans and non-human animals. However, in foregrounding and playing with this binary, they allow one to critically engage and trouble these deeply entrenched and problematic Western categorizations. These texts, which often feature heightened and fantastic elements, force audiences to engage the animal figure in these narratives, a figure with great potential to disrupt the texts’ diegesis. As one confronts the sometimes-absurd lengths these texts go to in creating these human-versus-nature scenarios, one begins to see the way these narratives often dramatize humanity’s guilt and anxiety vis-à-vis its relationship with the natural world. Though far from an exhaustive consideration, this piece endeavors to demonstrate the critical value of texts that might otherwise be dismissed as simply furthering negative cultural attitudes towards the natural world.

Fiction is full of revenge stories. It is a well-worn narrative: a wronged individual seeks vengeance against the wrongdoers. Often, whether explicitly or implicitly, the righteousness of these quests comes under scrutiny within the text. Does the punishment match the crime? Will the act of revenge bring satisfaction or peace to those seeking retribution? Those are common questions when the text features a human pursuing another human. When the target of a human’s revenge mission is a non-human, it invites different questions, ones addressing the epistemological challenges that animals pose to humans. Can a non-human animal treat a human poorly? Can it do so intentionally? If an animal hurts a person when acting in accordance with its nature, can its actions be read as malicious, justifying a desire for retributive justice?[i] Certainly there are historic records of animals being put on trial and even executed for “criminal” offenses, and humans still euthanize potentially dangerous animals that injure or kill humans. Many humans reject the notion that the actions of non-human animals can be judged on the basis of human morality and intentionality, making it difficult to declare an animal “bad.”[ii] Still, regardless of whether an animal can be considered villainous in the real world, a number of revenge narratives center on humans pursuing non-human bêtes noires.

Two particularly striking examples are Captain Ahab, from Moby-Dick (1851, Herman Melville), and Quint, from Jaws (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg). Ahab, the commander of a whaling vessel, pursues the individual white whale that took his leg. Quint’s animus lacks focus; after witnessing sharks feeding on sailors following the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Quint seemingly has made a life of hunting and killing sharks. Though time and media separate Herman Melville’s novel and Spielberg’s film, both are iconic American high-seas adventures, and their bare bones similarities make their differences meaningful. While Ahab and Quint share an intense monomania, the texts differ in their attitudes towards these men and their quests.

Ahab’s desire for revenge carries a tragic futility. Confronted with a difficult situation, Ahab projects agency onto the whale and makes it his mission to punish it for his misfortune. Starbuck questions Ahab for seeking “Vengeance on a dumb brute… that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”[iii] Part of Ahab’s blasphemy lies in ignoring an important element in how the West traditionally conceptualizes the difference between humans and animals. Ahab sees the whale as an active, thinking opponent, instead of recognizing it as something acting out of reflexive self-defense. Dave Dowling argues that ambiguity is a key element of Melville’s sprawling text, which deconstructs a “crisp allegorical dualism between good and evil.”[iv] The novel does not clearly present the whale as the malevolent entity Ahab imagines. Dowling suggests that the failure of subsequent screen adaptations of Moby-Dick stems from the way populist visual media ignores that element of the book, favoring instead simplified melodrama and the spectacle of human beings battling a terrible leviathan. In effect, these adaptations buy into Ahab’s delusion.[v] Dowling sees this weakness replicated not only in Moby-Dick adaptations, but also in other cinematic tales of humans fighting animals, including Jaws

Like Ahab, the vengeful Quint fails to achieve a personal victory, becoming a meal before he acquires another shark trophy. Yet, while Quint is unsuccessful, the narrative suggests that the natural world can, and perhaps should, be disciplined. The white whale of Moby-Dick lacks logic enough to specifically target Ahab, making Ahab’s vendetta one-sided and ultimately futile. Jaws’ great white might similarly lack intentionality, but, in addition to lacking logic, it also lacks restraint or decency and must be put down. Regardless of whether the shark’s actions are malicious, per se, it unambiguously poses a threat to human life.[vi] While Quint dies along the way, his vendetta against the species makes a degree of sense given the shark’s reign of terror. Police Chief Brody joins Quint following a series of deaths, and the near-death of his own child, an event that gives him a personal stake in the fight. While Ahab’s fruitless efforts result in the loss of his ship and crew, Brody achieves a crowd-pleasing victory. He howls with delight after destroying the shark, complete with a snappy one-liner before the fish’s explosive send-off. Dowling laments the way Jaws and its ilk simplify Melville’s complex tale of man-versus-nature for the masses. However, while the drama plays out quite differently in Jaws and Moby-Dick, they both reify traditional boundaries between humans and animals. The fact that these are narratives of opposition, with two sides pitted against each other, aids that division. They also avoid giving their animal antagonists cognitive credit – they both center on humans facing off against “dumb brutes.”[vii] Revenge narratives that offer different central roles to animals trouble the way people traditionally think about this human-animal binary. 

Complementing narratives in which animals are the targets of revenge, there are movies in which animals either pursue revenge on their own behalf, or become instruments of revenge. In the former, animals, acting individually or as a unit, actively attempt to harm humans. The animals might be driven by animosity towards individual human beings, as in the case of Orca (1977, dir. Michael Anderson), in which a whale pursues the fisherman who accidently killed its pregnant mate.[viii] Animals might also band together to destroy humanity for its environmentally irresponsible practices, as seen in environmentalist horror films like Frogs (1972, dir. George McCowan).[ix] Alternatively, a human seeking revenge against another human might weaponize animals, training them to attack on command, like the army of rats in Willard (1971, dir. Daniel Mann).[x]

One of the main issues with the human-animal division is that it invites comparison; it suggests mutually exclusive categories to be weighed against each other. Historically, that results in the animal being judged as inferior because it supposedly lacks the characteristics that make humans exceptional. This, in turn, allows human interests, our interests, to be placed ahead of theirs. Critics tend to agree that, given the baggage of this conceptual binary, it needs dismantling.[xi] It should be noted that these films featuring vengeful or weaponized animals often indulge in the same human-versus-nature fantasy seen in narratives like Moby-Dick and Jaws. However, they also critically engage those categories and their associated traits, which is a critical element in confronting these deeply entrenched categories.

There is a reason Starbuck is skeptical that Ahab’s whale sees itself as part of an elaborate cat-and-mouse game: seeking revenge requires a great deal of complex cognitive work. One needs to first recognize a perceived slight and the individual(s) responsible, and remember those things. The revenge-seeker then needs to create and enact a plan of action. In narratives where animals seek or facilitate revenge, they are presented as possessing an agency and intellect far beyond what one would expect from a “dumb brute” acting on “blindest instinct.”

This advanced cognition is most readily on display when the animals are the ones seeking revenge. Typically, these films embrace the fantastic quality of their narratives, as numerous species coordinate their actions in an assault on ecologically irresponsible humans. In Frogs, all the species of a polluted swamp join forces under the watchful eyes of their apparent amphibian commanders, to systematically annihilate a family of rapacious industrialists. The result plays out like a satirical ecological parable, as the slow violence of pollution[xii] becomes a natural world suddenly and radically inhospitable to human life. Environmental apocalyptic narratives tend to imagine a dystopian post-nature world, a future in which humans struggle to survive after they have decimated the organic world.[xiii] However, environmental horror films like Frogs suggest that humanity might not outlast the natural world. These films dramatize the concept of a self-regulating intra-connected ecology from which humans have attempted to disentangle themselves. In so doing, humans have warped these systems in a way that makes them harmful to humanity. In Frogs, this sense of an active system, possessing its own form of agency and intellect, is dramatized through bizarre sequences of kamikaze lizards locking a man in a greenhouse before knocking over jars of poisonous fertilizers, or butterflies leading an avid butterfly collector towards waiting snakes.

As such absurd moments illustrate, these films tend to portray the behavior of their animal antagonists as unnatural. There is a concession that these animals are not actually capable of this kind of thinking. Films that present the behavior of their animal antagonists as natural tend to fall into the Jaws model. At the end of the day, these creatures are nothing more than dumb animals, acting according to a bestial and instinctual drive that makes them terrible, but also predictable and beatable. Orca, one of the many films made in the wake of Jaws to capitalize on its success, centers on killer whales, a species whose real-world intelligence goes beyond what humans would expect from most non-human animals. That intelligence manifests itself within the film through the whale’s convoluted attempts to lure its fisherman opponent back out to sea. Of course, while the film features lengthy lectures about the real-world intelligence of killer whales,[xiv] its narrative still heightens this intelligence to fantastic levels. In a particularly implausible and ingenious move, the whale enters the harbor of the fisherman’s village. First, it jumps out of the water, bursting gas pipes in order to spread fuel everywhere. It then rams the support beams of a cabin on the docks, knocking over a lamp and starting a fire, which races towards a fuel tank overlooking the town, causing a massive series of explosions. As the town burns in the background, the whale leaps from the sea in the foreground, seemingly frolicking with joy at the destruction it has caused.

The animals in these films are anthropomorphized through their desire for revenge. This is especially true of Orca’s whale.[xv] The animals in films where nature as a whole takes revenge on humans possess an intelligence that seems more human than animalistic, but it is an odd, alien intelligence. They respond as a system, rather than as individuals. The whale, driven mad with grief over its dead loved ones, possesses a personal motivation recognizable to human audiences. Indeed, the fisherman, who lost his wife and child to a drunk driver, begins to see himself in the whale, ultimately acquiescing to the whale’s desire to draw him out to sea and into deadly conflict. At the film’s conclusion, the connection and understanding between these enemies is displayed through matching shots of these individuals framed in an extreme close-up of the other’s eye. While the animals’ rage makes them more human-like, human characters seeking revenge can become more bestial and animalistic.

In Willard, the audience might sympathize with the main character and his desire to get even with his bullying boss. At the same time, the film suggests that there is something unnatural, perhaps repulsive, in the intimate bonds he forms with his rats. The rats are foreign bodies that function as organic extensions of Willard’s body and will.[xvi] When Deleuze and Guattari discuss the concept of “becoming-animal” in A Thousand Plateaus, they discuss how Ahab’s obsession with the white whale changes him, plunging him into a process of “becoming-whale.”[xvii] Willard offers another example[xviii], his fascination and bond with these creatures being based on intense affection rather than animosity. Deleuze and Guattari discuss how Willard becomes-rat throughout the film, shunning the norms of humanity as he develops a demonic alliance with his pack of rats.[xix] Of course Willard’s rats ultimately kill him, although the significance of Willard’s death depends on how one views his bonds with these creatures. For Deleuze and Guattari, that punishment comes from him trying to reenter society by ending the ongoing process of becoming, although one might also see it as resulting from his willingness to cross those taboo boundaries. Yet, just as Willard goes beyond the bounds of what one expects of humans, his rats begin to exceed what one would expect from animals.

Compared with the animals that seek revenge on their own terms, these trained animals less clearly possess an agency and intellect of their own. At the same time, they display an unusual aptitude for learning, which allows them to become increasingly independent and unpredictable.[xx] Their training within the film also directly points to the real-world training of the animals used in the production. Just as the rat characters in Willard perform amazing tricks, the rat actors used during filming also clearly possess a great capacity for manipulation. Indeed, the same could be said of most flesh-and-blood animals “playing” dangerous creatures in animal attack films. When these films feature real animals attacking human actors, they invite the realization that this illusion of danger depends on extraordinarily well-trained animals – animals commanded by humans to safely interact with other humans. As a result, these fictions often contain the seeds of their own deconstruction.

Scholars note that the presence of an animal always holds the potential to rupture the self-contained world of the story, to point to a reality beyond the diegesis.[xxi] Perhaps one reason for the efficacy of Moby-Dick and Jaws as narratives is their ability to keep many audience members from directly engaging the animality of their central animals. While Jaws has been linked to negative real-world attitudes and policies towards sharks,[xxii] the critical truism holds that Jaws is not about a shark.[xxiii] The critical game with these texts so often comes down to trying to figure out what the animals mean. In other words, what significance do these animals have for their human characters, and what, in turn, can these texts tell audiences and critics about the human condition? That is an understandable perspective to take on these films, because when a human takes against an animal, the narrative is more centered in the human’s perspective and intentions. Audiences want to understand what they are going through, rather than dwelling on the seemingly shallow meaning of the dumb brute. However, in texts where the animal begins to play a more central and active role in the proceedings, the animal figure demands more literal engagement. A useful example of this can be seen in the development of the Jaws franchise.

If the critically lauded Jaws is not a film about a shark, that was a lesson lost on the producers who continued the series. While the Brody family ostensibly remains a constant, the shark becomes what defines the subsequent films. The culmination is the notorious Jaws: The Revenge (1987, dir. Joseph Sargent), whose tagline declares: “This time it’s personal”. Here, the shark ceases to have any claim to reality; it is no longer dangerous simply by virtue of being a shark. The shark’s actions suggest a bizarre fixation on the Brody family, ultimately pursuing its matriarch from New England to the Bahamas. Jaws: The Revenge might help mitigate some of the cultural fears stirred up by the original film. This sort of plotting not only earns near-universal critical condemnation, it also illustrates how difficult it is to make these real-world animals into plausible movie monsters. The more absurd these texts become, whether through their use of unusually persistent fish or Machiavellian amphibians, the less natural they make human fears of animals seem. In shining a light on these narrative constructions, they invite us to not simply consider what human-versus-nature films say about people, but to explore what they say about our relationship with the natural world.

In a film like Jaws, the animal takes the blame and pays the price. Amity’s mayor might be corrupt, but the shark functions as the primary villain, whose spectacular death offers a satisfying conclusion. In films where the animals seek revenge, or are manipulated by humans, the sin belongs to the humans. They are the ones whose pollution drives the natural world to attack out of self-defense. They are the ones who abuse their connection to the natural world, turning animals into a resource for satisfying their personal desires. These are both variations of humans being ecologically irresponsible, and often these films feature those humans being violently punished as a result of their misdeeds. These human characters come to represent exaggerated versions of our bad behaviors; they serve as symbolic scapegoats whose sacrifice helps to exercise, and perhaps temporarily exorcise, anxieties about our relationship to the natural world.

The question of how to positively engage and channel those negative feelings of guilt and anxiety becomes one of the challenges facing scholars interested in ecology and the humanities. It can be very easy to dismiss films with animal villains as ideologically objectionable texts.[xxiv] Yet these tales of human conflict with animals and the natural world are unlikely to go anywhere, as they still appeal to filmmakers and audiences.[xxv] Rather than simply labeling these films as bad representations of animals, these popular genre texts should be approached as useful tools for engaging how people think about their place in the world, and their relationship with their non-human coinhabitants. Revenge narratives featuring animals in various roles offer a range of examples that provide diverse approaches to these sometimes vexing dynamics. Ironically, critical engagement with these tales of animosity might play a role in moving people towards more benevolent and respectful conceptualizations and relationships.


1971Willard. “Willard (1971) – Complete.” Youtube Video, 1:34:13. Posted 19 July, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3Fndi62nGI.

Buell, Frederick. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2002.

Dark Age. Directed by Arch Nicholson. 1987. DVD. Kew, Victoria, Australia: Umbrella Entertainment, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987.

Dowling, David. “‘Revenge upon a Dumb Brute’: Casting the Whale in Film Adaptations of ‘Moby-Dick.’” Journal of Film and Video 66.4 (2014): 50-63.

Frentz, Thomas S., and Janice Hocker Rushing. “Integrating Ideology and Archetype in Rhetorical Criticism, Part II: A Case Study of ‘Jaws.’” Quarterly Journal of Speech 79 (1993): 61-81.

Frogs. Directed by George McCowan. 1972. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2007.

Ingram, David. Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema. Exeter, UK: U Exeter P, 2004.

Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg. DVD. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2012.

Jaws: The Revenge. Directed by Joseph Sargent. DVD. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2003.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.

Neff, Christopher. “The Jaws Effect: How movie narratives are used to influence policy responses to shark bites in Western Australia.” Australian Journal of Political Science 50.1 (2015): 114-127.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.

Orca. Directed by Michael Anderson. DVD. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, 2004.

Plumwood, Val. “Surviving a Crocodile Attack.” UTNE Reader, accessed 20 November 2016, http://www.utne.com/arts/being-prey.


[i] This question relates to a concern that lies at the heart of humanity’s coexistence with dangerous animals. Accepting these creatures’ alterity and right to exist requires an acceptance and mindfulness of a discomforting “ecological vulnerability.” A useful discussion of these issues can be found in Val Plumwood’s “Surviving a Crocodile Attack,” published elsewhere as “Being Prey.” Ruminating on her survival of a saltwater crocodile attack, Plumwood argues that the existence of large predators humbles humans. Our tolerance for them indicates our willingness to tolerate otherness on the earth and recognize ourselves as being part of, rather than apart from, the ecology.

[ii] The Australian film Dark Age (1987, dir. Arch Nicholson) centers on a dangerous saltwater crocodile, and offers an unusually sympathetic perspective on the animal in question. After the crocodile eats a little boy wading in the water, our hero explains: “You shouldn’t judge [crocodiles] like humans. They don’t know that kids are taboo!”

[iii] Melville, 236.

[iv] Dowling, 53.

[v] Dowling argues: “Just as Ahab heaps his world woes onto the whale, filmmakers have typically made the creature a scapegoat for the culture’s political and social frustrations.” 50.

[vi] It also threatens Amity’s ability to economically exploit its coastal environment and for tourists to safely engage in leisure activities.

[vii] In Jaws, Hooper, the shark expert, describes the great white as “an eating machines… all this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks – and that’s all.”

[viii] Other examples would include White God (2014, dir. Kornél Mundruczó) and The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale (2015, dir. Park Hoon-jung)

[ix] Other examples would include The Day of the Animals (1977, dir. William Girdler) and Long Weekend (1978, dir. Colin Eggleston)

[x] Other examples would include The Deadly Bees (1967, dir. Freddie Francis), Stanley (1972, dir. William Grefe), and, of course, the remake of Willard (2003, dir. Glen Morgan).

[xi] One critic making this argument is Donna Haraway, who notes that the separation of humans and animals is one of many such “Great Divides,” which include “nature/culture, organic/technical, and wild/domestic.” She does not advocate eliding the difference between those categories (differences which “demand respect and response”), but warns that people should not become overwhelmed by those differences. When Species Meet, 15.

[xii] The term “slow violence” here being a purposeful nod to Rob Nixon – although it is admittedly a bit perverse, since Nixon expresses a great deal of concern over the way our desire for visual spectacle and melodrama makes it difficult to deal with and comprehend the gradual effects of pollution, leading him to call for different forms of narrating and representing these issues. Slow Violence, 2.

[xiii] Fredrick Buell offers a useful description of how science fiction film and literature variously imagines this “post nature” world, in ways both melancholic and anticipatory. From Apocalypse, 227-260.

[xiv] A lecturer in Orca explains to a class: “We know very little about the nature of the whale’s intelligence, except that it exists and is powerful. And in some respects may even be superior to man.”

[xv] The same lecture referenced in the above endnote features the odd but apropos note that “like human beings [killer whales] have a profound instinct for vengeance.”

[xvi] Donna Haraway discusses science fiction’s cyborg character, with its combination of animal and machine. Characters like Willard might be conceptualized as an all-organic version of the cyborg, a combination of animal and animal elements.

[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, 243.

[xviii] Indeed, Willard functions as the opening reference point in the philosophers’ discussion of “becoming-animal.”

[xix] Ibid., 233. 

[xx] This results in their revenge on Willard for his abandonment and betrayal, and also leads into the return of Willard’s main rat in the sequel Ben (1972, dir. Phil Karlson)

[xxi] Jonathan Burt explains: “the animal image is a form of rupture in the field of representation…. that the animal image can so readily point beyond its significance on screen to questions about its general treatment or fate in terms of welfare, suggests that the boundaries of film art… cannot easily delimit the meaning of animals within its fictions.” Animals in Film, 11.

[xxii] For one explanation of this ongoing linkage, see Christopher Neff, “The Jaws Effect.”

[xxiii]Frentz and Rushing outline several critical interpretations in their own exploration of the sharks meaning. They discuss Jane Caputi’s feminist reading of the shark as the “Terrible Mother,” and Fredric Jameson’s argument that the shark is just a red herring to distract from the real point of the film, which is the class system. “Integrating Ideology.”

[xxiv]David Ingram takes issue with the way Jaws wildly misrepresents sharks, and possibly contributed to the increase in great white shark hunting in the late 1970s. Green Screen, 89.

[xxv] Two recent high-profile examples of the continuation of these narratives include Ron Howard’s take on the real events that inspired Moby-Dick in In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and the killer shark film The Shallows (2016, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra).

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