Not All Movie Violence Is Created Equal

Newtown may open a debate about killing in entertainment. But the best works of entertainment are already having that debate.

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The Weinstein Company / Film District / CBS Films

The tragedy that unfolded in Newtown last week likely can't be relegated to having a singular cause, and if it can, that cause certainly isn't a work of entertainment. Still, when a crime like this happens, people, quite understandably, start to question the culture it happened in. "America leads the world in massacres in life, and in film too," wrote Nick Thompson at The New Yorker this past weekend. "...It's time to talk about guns; but it's also time to talk about a lot more." Here at The Atlantic on Monday, Laura McKenna wrote that the shootings made her reconsider giving Halo 4, a shoot-'em-up video game, to her son for Christmas.

These pieces have been thoughtful and measured in their consideration of violence in art; we're a long ways away from the days when Marilyn Manson and Dungeons & Dragons were breathlessly blamed for making otherwise good people do unspeakable things. But even so, calls to open a conversation about mayhem in entertainment sometimes miss the crucial fact that that conversation is already taking place—within the entertainments themselves. Looking back at this past year in film, some very good, very violent films stand out as examples of how fiction provides a safe space to examine violence and mankind's inability to move past it.

We'll begin with Looper. The time-travel action flick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hitman from the future who learns the hard way about violence's long shadow. His job is to kill strangers—blindfolded men who are sent back from the future—but one day, he is tasked with whacking his future self. That's how the organized crime outfit that employs him erases evidence of its misdeeds, and writer/director Rian Johnson uses this set-up to explore the cyclical nature of violence.

But Johnson drops plenty of hints that his subject is not only violence itself but also the role that the movies play in perpetuating it. He includes references to Casablanca and the work of French New Wave master Jean Luc-Godard. The entire plot in fact is reminiscent of La Jetee, a classic film famously remade by Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys to revolve around a conspiracy to unleash a virus and destroy mankind; perhaps Johnson thinks the stakes are as large here. The arrangement between Joe and the mob—a clean kill, with no witnesses—resembles the relationship between a film and its audience. Many filmmakers profit from their use of violence, leaving someone else—the viewer—to deal with the fallout. Johnson's movie suggests it is time to reconsider the merits of that relationship.

Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths takes things a step further. It is the story of Marty, a screenwriter struggling to write a script called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths, and it would be confusing if it weren't so damn entertaining. Marty's central dilemma is that he wants to write a script about violent people, but he really wants to make it "life-affirming." McDonagh offers the audience manifestations of opposing viewpoints on movie violence in Marty's friend Billy Bickle (his last name is an homage to another film whose use of violence was endlessly debated, Taxi Driver) who seemingly exists only to create scenarios in which violence is inevitable, and his partner in canine-thievery Hans, a weary old con who wishes only to live out his golden years in peace.

In the third act, just when most crime movies would scrap the dialogue and begin an extended action sequence, Seven Psychopaths takes our heroes on a trip to the desert, where they try to finish the script together. They engage in a spirited debate on the merits of violent movies, which the film's relatively bloody finale does little to conclude. In the end, the film does not condone or condemn its own violence, but it is worth noting that, as we learn in a mid-credits sequence, Marty's life is spared only because he has been emotionally affected by what he witnesses. McDonagh believes that our recognition of movie violence's impact is enough for now.

Lastly, there is Killing Them Softly, the worst-received of these three films (the reviews were just OK, but it received an F from Cinescore, which measures audience reactions). Writer/director Andrew Dominik adapted George Higgins's 1974 crime novel, Cogan's Trade, for the screen by contrasting his story of a petty robbery and its bloody aftermath with the 2008 economic collapse and presidential campaign. Obama's acceptance speech opens the film, and in every scene in which a TV is present, it is turned to news of the campaign's latest developments. Dominik's aim is all too clear; he is drawing parallels between the white-collar crime in government and finance and this low-level thuggery to demonstrate the pervasive influence of corruption and violence in American society.

Of the three films discussed here, the violence in Killing Them Softly is the most vivid. One character receives a vicious, extended beating. A shooting is filmed in extreme slow-motion. Several characters are shot point-blank in the head. The brutality will make a lot of viewers uncomfortable, but it'll also thrill them. This conflicted reaction is the point—and part of Dominick's larger statement about cultures of corruption.

The list goes on. Cabin in the Woods deconstructed the horror-movie genre and asked whether the death of young innocents actually has a purpose (the filmmakers answered affirmatively). Blockbusters like The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises showed how violence can be harnessed, tragically, for political purposes. Even The Avengers, which featured a climactic action sequence that evoked 9/11, couched its bellicose themes with the rhetoric of peace, harmony, and cooperation.

Of course, artistic contemplation of violence is nothing new. Back in 1994, Pulp Fiction got credit for contrasting philosophy-driven dialogue with outbursts of brutality. But Tarantino is, first and always, an exploiter of movie mayhem. This is the man who has stated in interviews that "violence is good" because it can be used to control the audience's emotions and that what he goes to the movies for is to see a man "bleeding like a stuck pig." I don't think filmmakers like Johnson, McDonagh, and Dominik quite share his glee; their contemplation of violence is woven into the fabric of the story, not simply added in between bloody outbursts. Predictably, Tarantino has preemptively condemned those who would link the tragedy in Newtown to his movies.

You could argue that there's a dose of hypocrisy in all these films, which capitalize on the barbarity they decry. That's valid. And after this latest round of all-too-real bloodshed, a lot of people may recoil at seeing fake bloodshed on screen ever again. That, too, is valid. But the fact remains that humans have always taken a voyeuristic interest in truly awful things. And violence has been an enduring part of civilization since its start, as we were reminded in such a horrible fashion on Friday. Surely it's better for art to ask questions about these things than for it not to.