Written by Josh Kadish and Sonia Gutkin
WARNING! Spoilers for Quentin Tarantino's films ahead!
For nearly three decades now, everyone and their mother has had an opinion about Quentin Tarantino. The eponymous auteur has courted controversy in front of and behind the camera numerous times - from his use of racial epithets to set viewers on edge, to his working relationship with longtime financier and known sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, to recent light being shed on intense on-set behavior with stars like Uma Thurman. No matter the controversy, Tarantino has kept his audiences coming back again and again, including these humble writers. He’s one of the few remaining auteurs who can drive out a crowd for a taste of his self-reflexive gumbo - including his latest creation, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood.
Much has already been made of the director’s paean to a Tinseltown lost to time - from its (relative) lack of narrative drive to the way it plays with the personas of its luminous stars. But no subject has been under as much scrutiny as its final, hyper-violent stretch - operatic and bloody as anything the filmmaker has thought up before. Come to think of it, the violence littered throughout this filmography has nearly turned from talking point into calling card for the filmmaker over subsequent years.
Many critics regard his use of violence with a blanket dismissal, arguing that because he revels in provocative gruesomeness, he is holding a mirror up to society’s primal urges. Others argue that by representing things so graphically, he is responsible for perpetuating violence’s place in society, in a similar manner as violent video games do. We happen to believe that the truth lies somewhere in between - that there can indeed be grey areas for even the splashiest and most unsubtle of artists. In our estimation, critics have rarely taken a moment to bear witness to his evolution as a cinematic voice, and specifically the way his use of violence has evolved over the years. Consider this article an examination of QT’s second-biggest on-screen fetish*, and how he’s attempted to use his changing perspective to provide color commentary on this obsession.
Making Waves - Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, & Jackie BrownIndependent cinema was a whole different ballpark in 1992 - it was a time of unknown auteurs transforming into celebrated wunderkinds over the course of a single premiere. As legend goes, Tarantino was an upstart video store rat whose salacious scripts caught the eyes of Hollywood elite, namely Harvey Keitel. He was a kid in a candy store, itching to show off and make waves in the most tried and true method: by shocking his audiences. The irony is that Reservoir Dogs is relatively tame by Quentin’s later standards. Even the iconic ear-cutting scene is presented as too intense for the audience, his camera traipsing away to a blank wall as the poor police officer’s ear is taken from him.
In this earlier work, the violence is often suggested more so than it is presented - serving the purpose to snap audiences out of their stupor and recalibrate to the way the story is unfolding. You could argue that the violence in Pulp Fiction and even Jackie Brown punctuates the end of scenes, usually pulling characters down an even deeper rabbit hole. Celebrity critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel went so far as to devote an entire episode of their series “At the Movies” in defense of Tarantino, using selected clips from his filmography to set the record straight, and praise the upstart filmmaker for his relative restraint...at least from their perch in the 90s.
A Bigger, Bloodier Sandbox - Kill Bill & Death ProofFollowing the wave of acclaim and success that came with Quentin’s first films, and with larger budgets lending larger sandboxes to play in, Tarantino embarked on his most ambitious project to date: a two-part revenge saga centering around a female super spy assassin. Gone was the restraint - the gates were wide open for plenty of carnage to flow. There are plenty of grisly and unsettling images scattered throughout Kill Bill, but most audiences find this work to be supremely entertaining, the violence so over-the-top and cartoonish that its effect is comical more so than scary. This may go hand-in-hand with Tarantino’s joyous ode to the genres that made his brain buzz during childhood: kung fu epics, westerns and spy sagas.
The love for genre staples extends throughout his whole filmography, but met Quentin with his first box-office failure in Death Proof. As part of a larger experiment with fellow Grindhouse enthusiast Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof was Quentin’s high-octane answer to Rodriguez’ zombie mash. These filmmakers hoped to lend their audiences the nostalgic fervor they felt for exploitation cinema, but were ultimately let down. Yet, Tarantino saw this film as an opportunity to deepen the feminist angle on revenge he had begun exploring in Kill Bill. This is all the more apparent when you compare each film’s central male character. Bill has a lengthy amount of runtime to establish empathy and an inner humanity that complicates his motives for murdering The Bride. But Stuntman Mike is a total force of evil and misogyny that must be wiped off the face of the earth by an avenging group of stunt women. The violence here is shocking, but feels more of a piece with the films Quentin is referencing than the next evolutionary step in his craft.
These two movies are his female revenge stories, that are ironically unsettling for some women to watch. Since these stories dip their toes (literally and figuratively) into exploitation cinema, we watch many female characters drawing upon their sexuality as a weapon, whether they like it or not. But ultimately for me, as a woman, it’s extremely satisfying to watch other, powerful women exact their revenge on deserving men - lending an outlet of catharsis the real world rarely affords (granted, in extreme fashion). Tarantino’s obsessions with bare feet, swords and sexy outfits don’t deter me from enjoying a violent fantasy that we all harbor deep inside our collective subconscious.
Changing History - Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, & Once Upon a Time...in HollywoodHere’s where things get complicated. As his voice grew more pronounced, Tarantino decided to take a step into the real world, inviting the moral complexity inherent to revisionist history to invade his narratives. The violence in Inglourious Basterds is cathartic, specifically because it is directed at Nazis. Yet it is still shocking, gruesome and provocative. The most alarming example being the branding of evil via bowie knife - but the way this ties into the film’s concerns on a thematic level more than justifies the audience’s blood lust. Specifically, some have been critical of Quentin for altering the shape of history and potentially minimizing historic complexity into black and white, good vs. evil narratives. But speaking as Jews living in a modern world where fascism is slowly rising out of its crypt, the movie plainly speaks to our times in a way that more art should. Don’t we all have a bone in our body that wishes we could’ve scalped some Nazis?
In Django Unchained, history weighs heavily on the circumstances of its main characters. Django is afforded very little autonomy, subjected to or witnessing torture on those who are by all accounts innocent. Unlike his earlier work, most of the violence in the film is protracted and intense, without the zany feeling of catharsis seen throughout Kill Bill and Basterds. Watching slaves ripped apart by packs of wild dogs carries a solemnity that can’t be denied; we as an audience are implicit in the torture - and only in its final stretch does the story grant Django violent retribution.
His following film isn’t directly tethered to a historical event, yet the film plays as a horror show with cultural implications throughout. It’s fitting that Tarantino’s biggest influence on The Hateful Eight was John Carpenter’s The Thing, about a shapeshifting alien force that would burrow its way into the heart of any warm body. The characters populating this Western are mostly rotten to the core, their violent acts personal, painful and often unsparing. There’s a reason many audiences couldn’t stomach this film in particular, especially because there’s no catharsis, just prolonged spite that bubbles up in the form of bullet holes.
This ultimately brings us to the most recent (and perhaps final) chapter in Tarantino’s career. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood has mostly been celebrated for its deliberate shagginess and restraint in comparison to the rest of his filmography. Yet the narrative is perhaps more directly self-reflexive than usual. In the final moments leading up to the prolonged violent attack capping of this story, a crazed character justifies her bloody predilections with revenge on those responsible for rearing them to this primal state: the people who made the violent movies they grew up on. Many have criticized such a statement to be too direct in its implications, but it serves as justification for Tarantino to double down on his own bloody predilections.
Quentin Tarantino is and always has been a complex artist for the way he trades in salacious material in order to provoke a reaction in his audiences. Some audiences may be offended by the way he couches his fantasies in the fabric of female, Jewish, African-American and other disenfranchised characters’ narratives. Many believe that he’s minimizing their plight by simplifying the societal conflict. But what many fail to understand is that he uses violence as a tool for catharsis on a thematic and storytelling level, and in a wide variety of ways. In the social agreement we’ve created as a society, violence is not permitted because it leads to chaos, disarray and the horrible splintering of souls. But in Tarantino’s cinema, it functions the way a song plays in a musical: lending a voice to an idea or a character when a few words simply won’t do.
*First On-Screen Fetish: Naked Female Feet