Precision tends to get a bum deal from film critics. Constantly on the lookout for art in a medium that's run very much as a business, we tend to gravitate toward movies whose frames can barely contain the outsize personalities of their directors. Even subpar work by the idiosyncratic, aggressively expressive likes of David Lynch, Werner Herzog or Abel Ferrara seems preferable to some studio hack's cookie-cutter "vision."
The downside to this approach, however, is that "craft" can start to sound like a four-letter word. Nothing will excite most of the film buffs I know less than describing a movie as incredibly well-constructed, yet it's just that sort of expertly calibrated attention to detail, both formal and structural, that makes Revanche, written and directed by Austrian Götz Spielmann, one of the year's best dramas. You won't feel as if you've been splattered by the contents of Spielmann's id, by any means, but spending time in the hands of someone who knows exactly what he's doing can be every bit as exhilarating.
So masterfully is Revanche assembled—see how the necessary critical vocabulary makes it sound IKEA-generic?—that even an alert viewer won't immediately grasp Spielmann's intentions. For a while, it plays like a fairly straightforward crime flick: Sick of watching his Ukranian girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), get abused at the brothel where they both work, genial gofer Alex (Johannes Krisch) decides to rob a bank, just to get enough start-up money to allow them to leave Vienna and make a better life for themselves elsewhere. At the same time, via seemingly unconnected parallel action, we're introduced to Robert (Hanno Pöschl), a rather meek police officer whose wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), has been trying in vain to conceive a child. But while you may be able to readily guess how the fates of cop and criminal intersect, it's at precisely this juncture that Revanche veers in an unexpected direction: deep into the Austrian countryside, where revenge takes a decidedly unusual form.
To say much more than that, plotwise, would spoil one of the great pleasures of a film like this, even though the narrative revelations aren't so much about twists and turns as they are about watching various pieces snap into place in an emotionally satisfying way. Spielmann's direction, while anything but flashy, is a thing of sheer beauty, with the components of each individual scene—composition, rhythm, performances, stray bits of business—all so perfectly judged that their cumulative force sneaks up on you. "Protagonist sublimates rage by chopping firewood," for example, isn't an idea that's gonna wow anybody on paper, but in Spielmann's expert hands this recurring motif takes a giant buzzsaw to your nervous system, just by virtue of the way each scene is shot and how it's placed relative to the events that precede and follow it. Even the film's English subtitles, which reflect Tamara's mangled German, are spot-on.
Granted, it can be a tad stifling to see every 't' carefully crossed and every 'i' methodically dotted. Ultimately, Revanche, for all its undeniable excellence, is too neat and tidy to achieve true greatness, especially with respect to Susanne and her conveniently empty nursery; the final shot, though beautifully inconclusive, nonetheless feels like the Q.E.D. of a mathematical proof. But masterpieces are few and far between, and so, at least nowadays, are movies this skillfully realized. And if it's a dose of the uncontainable you seek, look no further than the previously unknown (at least in the U.S.) Krisch, who makes Alex a riveting identification figure: volcanically expressive when the moment demands it, but also capable of heartbreaking stoicism. Plus the dude can chop a motherfucking log.