There is a great divide in the way violence is depicted in movies, which doesn’t really surprise me. Today, excessive violence in film has essentially replaced the trademarks of quality cinema. For most horror films, gore and shocking violence have replaced atmosphere and tone; for gritty actioners, the act of killing, the physical and mental ramifications of taking a life, have been reduced to a banal commonplace, spectators are numb to the innumerable death counts and bored by bloodshed. At this second, I don’t seem to be doing a very good job of defending this controversial and often time crude subject. However, like many controversial topics of film, violence is a subject worth defending, and if not, then it’s certainly one worth discussing.
What strikes me as intriguing – and equally frustrating – were the reviews of the recently released Quentin Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight. The film, particularly its third act, was criticized for its “excessive” violence, because apparently that’s totally out of character for Tarantino. The truth is that hyper-stylized comic book violence wasn’t The Hateful Eight’s problem – it certainly wasn’t for Tarantino’s previous films. The problem here is one that subsides in all violent films in general: the boundary between style and substance, artistry and overkill – a cinematic symbiosis which has crept into the realm of auteur cinema for the past 40 years.
Violence can speak volumes, whether it’s used for realism, social commentary or characterization – it will always have a place in cinema. It’s obvious that in the hands of the best filmmakers and storytellers, violence is not a mere novelty of various genre pieces and special effects. Describing this is relatively simple, take two film makers who are relatively known for their depiction of violence in films, Eli Roth and David Cronenberg.
Both are infamous for their creative and gruesome depictions of violence, however, only one of them has found critical acclaim in doing so. It doesn’t take a broad critique of either man’s filmography to see why this is the case, David Cronenberg is a storyteller first and foremost, Eli Roth is not. Graphic violence in Cronenberg’s films is a way to emphasize his character’s suffering, both physically and mentally, to express a certain madness the themes of his films inherit. Violence is the lifeblood of his narrative and cinematic craft. For Roth, violence is a gimmick, an effectively stomach-churning but meaningless feature that wears thin rather quickly. Between the two is a filmmaking culture clash, two completely different artistic visions, both ultimately connected by violence.
Violence is simply something that’s intrinsic to human nature, it exists in the real world and affects each and every one of us meaningfully throughout our lives. It’s no surprise that filmmakers, wanting to ground their films in reality, would want to connect with violence artistically, channel its meaning through an emotional, historical and social context. While I can understand that many can be squeamish and unsettled by the brutality of these films, it’s also important to understand that some of the greatest films in history are characterized by these moments.
Looking beyond Cronenberg’s creative and stylistic approach to graphic violence, you’ll find his works are defined by dense social commentary. This format can also be found extensively in the films by the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorcese and Akira Kurosawa – some of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived. No Country for Old Men, arguably the Coens’ most acclaimed film, places violence at its thematic core. It defines the world of their characters, a landscape which grows increasingly demented as the decades pass. The violence is stark, random and senseless, but – in the context of the film’s narrative – never meaningless.
The bloody, western-style shoot out at the end of Taxi Driver is almost a spectacle of graphic violence, but it’s also a statement, transcending the excessive portrayals of urban decay, sprawled carcasses and a setting illuminated under a crimson, bloody red lambency. At the time, when this kind of violence was seen as exploitative and controversial – especially with the 14 year old Jodie Foster present – Taxi Driver had nevertheless won over the critics. Its violence, while shocking, was imbued by strong, relevant critiques on post-Vietnam America. The American idealism, the mythologized western hero and shoddy political figures all subverted on a palette of urban, social decay. Looking at its gory climax, one can’t help but feel an inherent honesty to the macabre bloodshed.
Going back to The Hateful Eight, its over-the-top violence may seem like a tough pill to swallow – this is due to the over-saturated market of overly produced, hyper-violent movies preceding it. However, like with the aforementioned classics, The Hateful Eight’s violence indeed speaks for itself: it’s loud, surly, hypocritical and without limits, a reflection of America’s own bloody history. Violence, while crude and difficult to watch, has become something of a universal language, supplanting the remnants of silent cinema. It connects motifs, shares perspectives on worldly issues and can translate an idea stronger than any dialogue, any set frame or any presupposed action. Because violence is so prevalent in society today, there is an inherent truth to it, and much like an act of violence, the truth hurts.