Even as a kid watching old Westerns on TV, I sensed something was not right. A guy—let’s call him the good guy—pulls a gun on another guy and kills him. Very soon, the good guy reenters the world of his friends, his family, he has a drink, a few laughs—life goes on. Killing another human being has about as much psychological impact on him as taking out the trash.
This is the template for most depictions of movie violence, and we may have moods when we desire nothing more explosive from moviegoing than this guilt-free release—this lie. We fantasize that we could kill if we had to and survive with our souls unscathed. Movies are an unmatched medium for appealing to our most visceral and disreputable fantasies, and there may be a primal need to watch things blow up big. I wouldn’t trust anyone who felt otherwise. It’s when the real world—real emotion—intrudes on all this cartoon exaggeration that things get dicey. We are living through parlous times, and more and more I find myself in a state of disconnect between the disasters of war in the real world and the usual movie mayhem. Escapism is fine, but where are the films that capture, if only indirectly, the frights we are escaping from?
When it came out last year, Kill Bill Vol. 1 set off a lot of the usual alarums about the soullessness of its violence. I didn’t think the carnage, which was stylish in a martial-arts-flick/video-game sort of way, signaled the end of Western civilization, but there was one scene—a deadpan confrontation between Uma Thurman’s avenging Bride and the 4-year-old girl whose mother she has just murdered in her own kitchen—that was so cretinously unfeeling that it made me wonder if this director, who has made his reputation concocting scenes of extreme savagery, had ever actually witnessed one himself. Maybe he has, but to judge from his movies, his responses have been pulped and chop-sockied and put through the spaghetti-Western strainer.
As it turns out, Kill Bill Vol. 2 isn’t quite the bloodbath its predecessor was. In the first film, the pregnant Bride is left for dead in an El Paso chapel by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad headed by her boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine). Revived, she begins methodically hunting down her assailants. In Vol. 2, she scratches off the final three names on her hit list: Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen), a bouncer in a titty bar; Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), a leggy blonde who sports an eyepatch—her one good eye will inevitably get plucked; and Bill, who plays a big bamboo flute and speaks in that somnambulant purr familiar from Carradine’s Kung Fu days. The Bride, as always, has a sleek, almost synthesized look, as if she were computer-generated. En route to her final revenge, she gets pummeled, buried alive, shotgun-blasted.
Tarantino’s outlaw-brat rep rests mainly on his dog-eat-dog unsentimentality—there are no good guys in his movies, only bad and worse. Surprisingly, Vol. 2 is heavily fragranced with lengthy interludes about the enduring love between the Bride and Bill and about how she wanted to give up killing when she became pregnant. Since we already know from the conclusion of the first film that the Bride’s baby has survived, the only real suspense—other than anticipating how Bill will get whacked—lies in waiting for the reunion of mother and daughter. It is here that Tarantino, just as in that kitchen scene from Vol. 1, reverts to his old, unfragrant self: Another little girl, the Bride’s this time, survives the murder of a loving parent without registering the slightest flicker of woe.
“What I crave now are movies that acknowledge the fact that real people are harmed.”
And it is right about here that my misgivings resurface. I don’t mean to unduly target Kill Bill Vol. 2—it’s certainly no worse than most of the blam-blam fare out there. But what I crave now are movies that speak to me in a different way about violence, that acknowledge the fact that real people are harmed.
The nature of warfare, or more precisely, the ways in which we have been allowed to see it, has altered our perception of violence. Hollywood movies about, say, World War II and Korea were mostly sanitized, and they could get away with it because so much of the actual newsreel coverage of those wars was equally sanitized. Our access to the Iraq war, what with the Pentagon ban on shots of coffined soldiers, is in many ways equally sanitized, and far more troubling, since the blackout represents the triumph of the image-control machine over credibility.
But Vietnam was different. For most Americans, it was a televised war, and the battle images that poured into our living rooms had a gruesomeness that no movie could compete with. Although Hollywood didn’t deal with Vietnam directly until years after the war ended, the movies of its era were far more blood-soaked than those that came before. The old tastefulness suddenly seemed inadequate—a sick joke.
Many of the best films I grew up with, when Vietnam was raging and the assassinations were still fresh, had a complicated comprehension of suffering and brutality: Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, the Godfather films, Taxi Driver. Without being obvious about it, these movies issued from a place very deep inside the torn-up American psyche. They themselves were a species of violent act, provoking in audiences a full battery of fearful, often contradictory responses, a kind of exhilarated dread.
I am not arguing for a more in-your-face treatment of violence in our movies—as if that were the only way to render the subject honestly. The graphic bloodiness of these movies is not what made them memorable. We cared, in the widest sense, about, say, Travis Bickle, because his derangement had a human face—he was both startlingly close to us and unreachable. As Tarantino’s movies demonstrate, overkill, when applied to people with all the weight of holograms, can anesthetize us to any real pain onscreen. The anesthesia I’m talking about is more than local: One reason so many of us felt jolted by the images from Fallujah is that they shocked us back to a time, the Vietnam era, when we were not insulated from such ghastliness.
The call here is not for more explicit violence—if that’s even possible—but for a more explicit portrayal of the human consequences of violence. We are not entirely without these moments in our recent movies. Ron Shelton’s uneven cop thriller Dark Blue had a ferocious subplot about the dementia of what happens after the trigger is pulled. Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is about a father’s revenge, which is made to seem inescapable, against his son’s killer. It makes perfect emotional sense for this good man, this “good guy,” to perpetrate his crime—this is why the movie is the deepest kind of horror story. And he isn’t cleansed at the end, either; he’s spooked—nullified—by the possibilities he has discovered in himself. And then there is Mystic River. It’s a rich irony that Clint Eastwood, who has been associated for most of his career with screen characters who are, to put it mildly, unreflective about their own sadism, should have reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s more sensitive souls. The trauma of violence is the gist of Mystic River. It’s a legacy without end.
For film artists to be true to the experience of violence, they must also be true to every other aspect of life. The search for that truth is inevitably part of a greater search for emotional authenticity. I’ve lost my sweet tooth for slice-and-dice escapism, and perhaps this is why I feel the need to see movies that don’t simply glamorize or fetishize or supernaturalize brutality. The riven world with all its suffering seems matrix enough right now without investing a lot of time in The Matrix. And killing Bill seems irrelevant with so much real prey on the loose and ourselves caught in the crosshairs.