By Cole Henry
Violence in film is a tense subject these days thanks to the turbulent times that our world is in. Arguments are made daily as to why violence should be lessened in film, censored, and even banned all together (in some countries). Yet, I am here to present the argument as to why, when it is done with artistic purpose, violence can be one of the most important presentations of artistic prowess and emotion on the big (or small) screen. There is no greater punctuation or resolution in the language of film than that of a scene with violence that has meaning to the plot, and offers some sort of emotional impact. For example, violence punctuates the beginning and metaphysical end of David Cronenberg’s 2007 mafia masterpiece, Eastern Promises. The film opens with a brutal scene of violence involving a razor that isn’t for the faint of heart, and thus the viewer is fully enraptured by the world of threat and deceit that Cronenbreg builds in that opening scene. Violence marks the act shifts throughout the film as well, and violence marks the metaphysical end to Viggo Mortensen’s character in the film. He brutally fights two would be assassins, fully nude, in a Turkish bathhouse and is then hospitalized. It is in his hospitalization due to the aforementioned violence that his character is shown to be the hero of the narrative, and without the use of violence the viewer may have never come to this realization. Violence for the sake of emotion is such an important part of cinema and when used tastefully it can be, in some ways, quite beautiful.
Violence, when used as an art form or a feat for the eyes in film is also an incredibly important piece of cinema. Everyone, no matter how much they are against violence in film, can not help but marvel at beautifully shot action, and the choreography that goes into creating the kinetic nature of that action. It is something that fully captures the viewer’s attention, and it is impossible to avert one’s eyes from a well shot/choreographed action scene. For example, the 2014 action masterpiece, The Raid 2 by Gareth Evans, is a case study in the importance of well shot and choreographed action. The film is incredibly violent as the camera lingers on every punch, stab, broken bone, and bullet wound. Yet, it is choreographed and shot in such a way that it is endlessly entertaining. The viewer cannot help but be amazed at the fight choreography and stunt work on display from a multitude of incredible Indonesian martial artists. They make early Jackie Chan work look like mere child’s play. Each action scene is so complex and layered that it is almost overwhelming to the viewer yet Gareth Evans captures all the action in frame with little editing, no shaky cam, or jarring effects to hide poor stunt work (because there is none). It is hard to describe the hand to hand combat on display in this film and I implore you to seek it out and experience it for yourself. Another modern film that harnesses violence in a way that is artistic and a feat for the eyes is 2014’s John Wick. The violence in John Wick is much more gun based though, and the character of John Wick uses a firearm as an extension of himself. On screen it looks like some sort of ballet or martial art yet instead of punches and kicks it is rounds fired from a pistol. He fires every round with precision and if it is not a headshot it is a shot that enables him to place a headshot. All of the action is captured in the frame with smooth editing that allows the viewer to coherently follow the action, and it is hard hitting. Personally, I hate guns and violence in general but I respect when it is implemented well and with reason in a film. The motivation for John Wick’s murderous rampage is cheesy yet satisfying enough for the viewer to root for him in this fictional world of assassins and murderers. It is essential action viewing, and a prime example of cinematic violence as an art form.
Next, violence can be used to shock the audience, and I am not talking about “gore porn” or any of the tasteless shit like that that fills up horror movie sections everywhere. I am talking about violence that is used to shock an audience for a purpose, with confidence, with meaning! Jeremy Saulnier’s 2016 thriller, Green Room, is a brilliant film filled with gut wrenching tension, and gut turning violence. The brutality of the violence is important because it helps to highlight how disgusting and pointless violence truly is. Saulnier doesn’t revel in the disgust of his violence nor does he linger on it. He shows as much as he needs to in order to shock the audience into how horrific the acts on screen truly are, and it questions the viewer. The film asks why, as viewers, do we take such pleasure in film violence? We always enjoy seeing good trump evil but what happens when we see HOW good trumps evil? It is hard to still root for the “good guy” when he is shown dragging a straight razor across the “bad guy’s” stomach, and opening it up like it is a Thanksgiving turkey. Violence is inherently evil and thus Saulnier shows how evil the human spirit can go in order to conquer an even more evil entity. It is truly thought provoking material. Like Jeremy Saulnier, Martin Scorsese also uses graphic violence to shock his audiences into deeper and meaningful thoughts about violence, and why it occurs. This is most apparent in his 1976 classic (and my favorite film of his), Taxi Driver. It is a movie about a war veteran who battles insomnia and extreme loneliness to the highest degree, and he eventually becomes warped enough into believing his purpose is to wipe the streets of New York clean in a hail of gunfire. Once the violence comes to a head and occurs viewers are disgusted by what they see as Scorsese leaves nothing to the imagination, and shows everything in horrifically grimy detail. It is truly scary to see how mad loneliness can drive a man, and Scorsese uses violence to call, almost scream, at the audience that we need to help those who battle mental issues, especially our veterans. We have cast them to the side and disgraced them for too long, and Taxi Driver still feels eerily relevant in that regard. Shocking violence is truly emotional to see on screen, it stirs us in a way that is fueled by extreme displeasure and some sort of macabre curiosity that is hidden deep inside the human neurosis. Therefore, it is always scary and jarring to see violence shown on screen when it is horrific yet there is an emotional disconnect from the actors in that they perform these horrific acts in an otherworldly casual manner. The Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano, is a master of the use of emotional disconnect in cinematic violence. The characters in his movies, usually Yakuza members, always show a flippant disregard for the horrific acts they commit. It is always horrific to see a man get a drill through his cheek in a movie yet it is even scarier when it is portrayed where the man with the drill just looks bored as he brutally kills someone in the movie. Kitano’s characters always look bored with the violent acts they commit, and while this may seem unimportant it is in fact the opposite. His characters’ disregard for violence goes to show how bored cinema goers are with violence because it saturates every type of media and it rarely has artistic merit or meaning. Kitano is offering a direct “fuck you” to all of the lazy cinematic violence that goes on in the grand pantheon of film, and he wants his viewers to become aware of this so he has to shock and scare them into understanding. Kitano’s film, Outrage, is a great place to start if one is unaware of his filmography.
Finally, off-screen violence is an art form all its own. Violence that happens off-screen or is implied is often, in my opinion, ten times scarier than what any director, even the most depraved, could show onscreen. This is true because of one thing that showing violence onscreen takes away from the viewer, and that is the use of the viewer’s imagination. When the violence happens off-screen and is implied the viewer has no option but to use his/her imagination to create, in their head, the seemingly horrific deeds that are occurring off-screen. For example, Tobe Hopper’s 1974 horror masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rarely shows any of its horror onscreen yet it is billed as one of the scariest movies of all time. Nothing is scarier than the human imagination, and Hopper’s choice to cut away from a lot of the violence allowed the audience to scare themselves into Hopper’s submission through the use of their own imaginations. John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, does the same thing and it too pays off quite well. The sad thing is most horror movies have forgotten about the subtlety of off-screen horror, and thus feel the need to blow their load early with gallons of onscreen gore. In the end, it creates mindless drivel that I cannot even begin to call entertainment. In my opinion, the most potent and horrifying use of off-screen violence occurred in the 2014 HBO masterpiece, True Detective. It is a scene that involves a VHS tape that has some seemingly horrifying footage on it, and yet we are left to create this horrific violence in our heads as our only barometer for the terror of this VHS tape comes from Woody Harrelson’s haunting reaction to the VHS tape. It is some truly dark and seedy stuff that burrows its way into the fragments of our very being, and yet if it was shown onscreen it would just come off as tasteless shock value. Also, it shows the brilliance of Woody Harrelson as his reaction in that scene is worth any award one could throw his way.
In the end, Violence is an important, if not necessary, outlet of emotion and artistry in the world of film making. When it is done right it can elevate the medium of film into truly emotional art that is both powerful to the viewer, and also powerful in what the underlying tones of violence are trying to say/convey. Next time you watch a movie do not shy away from the violence, and instead try to understand why it is there, its importance, what it is trying to say both commentary wise and within the narrative of the film, and decide if it is done tastefully in a sense that it is not for some sick person’s pleasure. If you come to the conclusion that violence is in a movie just for the sake of violence then I implore you, no I beg you, to turn that shit off. Also, I do not condone any violence in the real world in fact I find it quite disgusting, and I also find guns to be terrifying in a sense. Thanks for reading!