Two films that I’ve watched recently have featured a large amount of pretty explicit violence. I’m not a viewer to flinch at any violence on screen, I can quite easily watch it. Well, easily isn’t quite the right word to use but I can watch it and generally I don’t complain about it. When I do criticise a film due to the violence in it, it’s normally because that violence was excessive and out of place violence for spectacle’s sake – gratuitous violence in other words.
My recent viewing was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Quentin Tarantino’s new release Django Unchained. I enjoyed the latter much more, and found myself thinking that the violence in Drive was pretty extreme to have seemingly sprung up out of basically nowhere. In this film I felt I didn’t care enough about the central character in order to justify these levels of violence. So is that all it takes, have a likeable central character an audience can on some level engage with and any violence in the plot is justified?
I don’t think so… Django Unchained pretty much jumps right in with the violence, it is gloriously glory in true Tarantino style with very clearly fake blood splattering everything in the vicinity including the screen. Is it the spaghetti western genre that Tarantino adheres to (and reinvents)? I don’t think so either. I don’t think a film’s genre at all justifies or necessitates extreme violence. I think slasher films are vile, but if the genre rule were to stick then the violence in them would be okay. So, no, I don’t think it’s that.
Judging the acceptability of violence in works of fiction is extremely complicated. I feel part of the heart of this lies with the subject matter – so Django Unchained is about slavery in pre-Civil War deep South America. As star of the film Jamie Foxx has suggested, you are supposed to feel angry and – in a similar vein – I think yes you are supposed to feel disgusted. But does this justify the huge spaghetti western shoot out made even more spectacular by Tarantino that happens in the latter part of the film? Because that is pure fictionalisation; when and why is it okay to make up violence, to write it and to portray it in a hugely fantasised way as opposed to sticking to almost documentary style footage?
Does the fictionalisation of violence make it more bearable? Which is, yes, a bad thing and the complete opposite of those opinions that violence in film causes violent behaviour in everyday life.
Our world is violent, and it is the job of all art to represent reality in some way (in whatever light it chooses and in whatever style it chooses to take). Film without violence would be unrealistic and just, well, unenjoyable (for many films anyway). Is this worrying that we get enjoyment from watching violence? Is it enjoyment that we feel? I thoroughly enjoyed Django Unchained it’s a brilliantly made film with a great soundtrack and many funny moments. I appreciated the way many of the violent moments were shot (interesting that this word is necessary here) and I felt they were entirely justified by the narrative; some, but not all, of them made me feel very uncomfortable and I’d have to say these were the ones that were closest to what I knew probably had been a reality at the time.
The violence in Drive, on the other hand, completely made me switch off my interest in the film. What am I saying here? Honestly I don’t really know, but I do think it’s a fascinating area to think about and to consider the questions of why when it comes to violence in film. My only semblance of an answer is that, when done right, violence in film is there to make audiences feel something in the extreme – exactly the same as violent language, or images such as Guernica or even The Scream…