It’s always a temptation to bring up the name of Hitchcock when reviewing a really good thriller. But while “Revanche,” the Austrian film written and directed by Goetz Spielmann that was an also-ran in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race, shows a degree of control that Hitch might have envied, a better comparison might be to the writing of Patricia Highsmith (whose first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” was, of course, the basis for one of Hitchcock’s best films). “Revanche” is suspenseful, but it builds tension with icy precision and a coolly matter-of-fact tone, like cinematic Highsmith. Chabrol sometimes manages a similar effect, and so did Michael Haneke in his superb “Cache.” Spielmann proves their equal.
“Revanche” is French for “Revenge,” and it centers on Alex (Johannes Krisch), a brooding man from a small Austrian village who works as a general fixer at a shabby Vienna brothel absurdly called Cinderella. He’s involved with one of the place’s hookers, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian refugee, but they have to keep the affair secret from their burly employer Konecny (Hanno Poeschl). When Konecny tries to force Tamara to make herself available in an apartment to his special clients, Alex decides rob a bank in order to allow the two of them to get away from the guy, to whom she’s deeply in debt.
He chooses a small branch in his home village, where his elderly, infirm grandfather Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser), a recent widower, still lives on a nearby farm. He cases the place and returns with Tamara, who waits outside in their stolen car while he commits the robbery. Unfortunately, the heist is interrupted by Robert (Andreas Lust), an earnest young cop who fires at the getaway car and accidentally kills Tamara.
The grief-stricken Alex takes refuge at his grandfather’s farm to plot his revenge. There he obsessively cuts the old man’s firewood for the coming winter, using both an axe and a mechanical saw that suggest violence is never far away. Entering the picture is Robert’s wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), heartbroken over a recent miscarriage, who’s been helping out Alex’s grandfather. Learning who her husband is, Alex is abrasive, but matters take a curious turn between them. Meanwhile Robert falls under investigation over the shooting, and is wracked with guilt over Tamara’s death. And Hausner’s increasing frailty is a growing concern.
An atmosphere of foreboding suffuses the film, but it’s never achieved through cheap tricks, and there are moments of menace, but they’re never effected through meretricious means. Rather Spielmann lets the story unfold deliberately, taking it in unexpected directions and methodically building a restricted but convincing world of pain and confusion through the accumulation of small, telling details. Even the absence of music, except for the booming strip-tease accompaniment at the Cinderella and the fractured accordion tunes when the grandfather takes out his ancient instrument and begins to play, seems unerringly right, allowing one to soak in the incidental sounds rather than be carried along by a manipulative score.
Spielmann’s vision is beautifully fulfilled by his crew and his cast. Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht captures every nuance of the locales, both urban and rural, in images that are ordinarily naturalistic but occasionally add a poetic touch—as when he captures a cloud’s shadow moving across a meadow, or the change brought to a field or a lake’s surface by a sudden wind; and there’s a striking moment when he twice follows a moving car to a turn in the road where a crucifix stands, only to hold on the forbidding forest (also used elsewhere to atmospheric purpose) as the car stops outside camera range. Krisch proves able to express Alex’s rage without excess, as does Lust Robert’s pent-up self-loathing, while Strauss and Potapenko’s restraint is similarly of a piece with the picture’s straightforward approach; even Poeschl, though convincingly slimy, is more businessman than brute. And Thanheiser is extraordinary as Hausner, fashioning a character realistically cantankerous—as opposed to the lovable coot we so often see—and yet honestly poignant, showing both the depth of his grief over his wife’s death and his stubborn refusal to admit his own physical decline.
“Revanche” comes with a message about personal responsibility at the close, and it provides a satisfying final twist, though not a terribly surprising one. But Spielmann’s film is remarkable primarily for its meticulous creation of mood, its quietly absorbing ratcheting up of a sense of fatalistic dread. Unsettling and at the same time genuinely moving, it’s a superb psychological thriller, which proves how much can be accomplished through relatively modest cinematic means if they’re well used.