Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in the grandest cinematic tradition it usually is. Is there a greater pleasure than watching a spurned do-gooder go bad in a way that is justifiable? I think not. John Wick, Kill Bill, The Hills Have Eyes, Oldboy – the list goes on forever, but I bet if we wrote down the titles of all the best revenge flicks we’d find a common thread: revenge movies are always super heightened. Perhaps this is due to the unsustainable nature of vengeance-based action. Or maybe it’s because the line between fun violence and upsetting violence is very thin when the goal is entertainment.
Enter Moka, a small-scale revenge “thriller” that impressively removes as much fiction as possible from the genre while still managing to reach similar thematic conclusions.
Emmanuelle Devos plays Diane, a grief stricken woman whose son was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Tired of seeing little action on the part of the authorities, Diane decides to take matters into her own hands. After stringing together a few leads based around a mocha-colored car (I only now am realizing that this is probably what the title is referring to), she makes a plan to kill the person or persons who she believes to be responsible for her son’s demise. Posing as a potential buyer for the now-repaired vehicle, Diane works her way into the social circle of her presumed marks. But she soon begins to question if the catharsis of vengeance is worth the struggle.
The film is based on a 2006 novel, and I’d be curious to see how the story works in a different medium. Mostly, I wonder if the page gives us greater insight into Diane’s thought process. That said, Devos’ layered performance, an awkward, mostly silent creation, captures so much of what Diane holds inside. Moka remains minimal, but it sits on the shoulders of a such rich depiction of genuine grief that to heighten the proceedings in any way would do a disservice to Devos’ tremendous work.
Where I found the most value in Moka is in the way it explores the idea that even the most black-and-white matters still do have a shade of gray to them. At first, it’s easy to get on board with Diane’s quest. Who wouldn’t want to bring justice to an irresponsible criminal who selfishly caused such a tragedy? But as Diane’s need for catharsis is mitigated through circumstance, so too is the audience’s hunger to witness it. I sat down for a “French revenge thriller” but instead got a meditation on the dangers of snap emotional judgments … and it was something I didn’t know I needed.
Moka opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.