Netflix’s ‘Do Revenge’ Takes Inspiration From a Book by a Nazi Sympathizer

Blink and you’ll miss it, but towards the beginning of Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Do Revengeone of the film’s main characters, Eleanor (Stranger Things‘ Maya Hawke), also reading Strangers on a Train.

It’s a cute little callout in a pretty smart movie stacked with ’90s rom-com references, Easter eggs, homages and meta moments. The gist: Eleanor and Drea (Riverdale‘s Camila Mendes) are unlikely allies—Drea is a recently dethroned queen bee whose snobby friends turn on her when a sex tape is leaked; Eleanor is a geeky new girl whose life was ruined when she confided her queerness in someone who weaponized it against her. They come together to do each other’s revenge—that is, to pull a Strangers on a Train.

The 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film based on the 1950 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol, is about (you guessed it) two strangers, Bruno and Guy, who meet on a train and decide to help each other out: Each has someone they want gone. Their idea? Do each other’s murders so that they’re untraceable.

Do Revengereleased September 16, is simultaneously a candy-coated indictment of performative wokeness—the film’s main villain, Max (Euphoria‘s Austin Abrams) is a sexual predator masquerading as an ally, who starts a club called the “Cis Hetero Men Championing Women Identifying Students League”—while also a spotlight on important topics like slut-shaming, bullying, class inequity, homophobia and influencer-era shallowness.

The irony (perhaps?) is that Highsmith espoused antisemitism but was a lesbian who, according to one of her biographers, Richard Bradford, author of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmithhad numerous Jewish lovers.

Camila Mendes as Drea and Maya Hawke as Eleanor in Netflix’s “Do Revenge.” Released September 16, “Do Revenge” is loosely based on “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith, which was also made into a 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Kim Simms/Courtesy of Netflix

Another Highsmith biographer, Joan Schenkar (who died in 2021) wrote in her 2009 book, The Talented Mrs. Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, “‘Jew-hater’ is really the proper term for what Patricia Highsmith was,” adding that she referred to Hitler’s extermination of 6 million Jews as both “Holocaust Inc.” and the “semicaust,” meaning that Hitler had stopped short of properly and completely ridding the world of Jews.

According to 2021 Washington Post review of Bradford’s book, while writing Strangers on a TrainHighsmith had an affair with a man, a novelist named Marc Brandel, and also went into therapy “with a psychoanalyst who, like all good Freudians in the 1940s, aimed to ‘cure’ her homosexuality….She was manipulating them both , [Bradford] writes, ‘because they embody normality.. . .She wanted to establish a tension, a dynamic between the world of conventional inclinations and morals and a life of perpetual deviancy.’ This was fodder for the twisted connection between Bruno and Guy Strangers on a Train.”

Drea and Eleanor end up twisting themselves, and what Highsmith would think of Do Revenge is hard to say (and who cares?), but it’s hard to discount the original author when viewing the latest incarnation. In the end, both everyone and no one in Do Revenge is a villain, and it’s hard not to miss the Star of David that is suddenly front and center around Max’s neck in the third act of the film. (This is in no way to insinuate that the film itself is antisemitic, though given the film’s extensive coverage of current bigotries plaguing the nation and world, not mentioning Highsmith’s hatefulness was perhaps a missed opportunity.)

After all, the movie owes as much (if not more) to Clueless, Pretty in Pink, 10 Things I Hate About You and 1999’s Cruel Intentions. That film, itself based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as resident queen, and in Do Revenge, the actress plays headmistress of the competitive Rosehill Country Day, which all the characters attend. (If your head hasn’t exploded yet, mazel.)

Newsweek has reached out to Bradford, Netflix, and Do Revenge director and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson for comment.

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