Premiering on PBS’ American Playhouse in March of 1984, Vengeance is Mine screened at the London Film Festival and Berlinale the same year. According to Roemer, the film screened nowhere else at the time, and virtually nowhere since, with the exception of a few retrospectives. Vengeance is Mine is not a lost film, and not necessarily even a forgotten one, as so few saw it to begin with (and those who did would have known it as Haunted). Nearly no writing contemporaneous to the television airing exists, with the exception of a New York Times review (not positive), a small capsule in People (positive), and a review in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. Roemer was never entirely happy with either Haunted or Vengeance is Mine as titles (Haunted, he thought “weak”, Vengeance is Mine too explicit). Nothing But a Man, by comparison, was originally titled Duff Anderson, Roemer thinking the final title tipped the hand of his intentions a bit too much.
Vengeance is Mine opens with Jo (Brooke Adams), in an unbroken take of over a minute, smiling, thinking, closing her eyes, as she flies into her New England hometown, slightly tipsy from onboard drinks. We do not yet know she is fleeing a physically abusive relationship, nor that she is returning to attempt reconciliation and say goodbye to her adoptive mother, before flying back out again to start a new life in Seattle. Within moments of her return, Jo, having shortened her name from the Mary Jo of her childhood, runs into an old boyfriend for whom she has no nostalgia or sentimentality. Through a quick series of occurrences—not wanting to return to her sister’s house after being attacked by her estranged husband and instead going to the home of the neighbors she has just met—Jo finds herself witness to a family coming apart under the stress of mental illness, and instead of backing away, is suddenly compelled, or willed, to become more involved in their lives.
In this film, Roemer’s ideas of character come to fullest fruition. Roemer has said that his characters believe themselves to be proactive, but are, in fact, reactive. They may think they know what they are doing, but, in the end, they are at the mercy of chance. What all of Roemer’s work shares is an assuredness of its own pace, in step only with itself, all utterly original works confronting major themes in a minor key. – excerpted from introduction by Jake Perlin