Tarantino’s most recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, follows the fading career of TV Western star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) and his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). The film is a trip down Hollywood memory lane and includes some very amusing moments (including an imaginary fight between Brad Pitt and Bruce Lee). However, the final scene of the movie concludes with extreme violence.
Three hippies enter Dalton’s house to commit murder. However, they are stopped by Booth (on an acid high) and his dog—stopped in the most graphic way imaginable: One villain is torched with a flamethrower, another has their head repeatedly bashed against a mantel piece, and the third gets taken out by the dog (we’ll just leave you to imagine what that entails).
Shocking, brutal, and disgusting, Tarantino’s movies never shy away from showing us the graphic nature of violence. While his style has incensed many people, Tarantino has defended his use of violence in films several times. Here’s one of those defenses:
The interesting thing about Tarantino’s style of movie violence is that it is often designed to make you laugh. The final scene of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood raised more than one chuckling voice in the theatre. Tarantino says that he enjoys playing the audience and getting you to feel emotions at the snap of his fingers.¹ In answer to the question of one interviewer, “Why the need for so much gruesome, graphic violence?” Tarantino said in exasperation, “Because it’s so much fun!”²
In another interview, Tarantino pokes fun at old movies where violence is minimal or never shown. For example, someone gets shot in the back and there’s just a hole in their shirt. Tarantino wants to see the blood, the guts—all of it.
Some Thoughts on Violence in Movies
Now this could easily become a post where we single out and blanketly criticize one member of the unholy trinity of Hollywood movies—violence, language, and sex. So, before we go on, we had better say a few things about violence in movies in general. I think all discerning audiences realize that there is a big difference between the violence in films like Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper, and Dunkirk versus the violence in films like Saw, American Psycho, and It.
A film like Saving Private Ryan shows us what it was really like when soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Though it is shocking and revolting, it’s good for us to remember what happened at Normandy and how terrible it really was. These types of films serve to remind us of the horrors of evil, and the lengths that people must sometimes go to defeat it. Whereas, films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, American Psycho, and many others revel and indulge in graphic violence for no apparent reason. Given these distinctions, it is not enough to merely count the violent scenes in a movie to determine if it is worth watching.
However, many people will argue that violence in movies desensitizes us to violence in real life, and there is some truth to this. Yet, one could also argue that movies that do not show the violence actually desensitize us more than graphically violent movies do. Think about a movie like Man of Steel, where Superman and General Zod are battling by throwing each other into buildings. Is there no one in those buildings? People are getting killed, but we don’t see it, so we aren’t bothered. By the same token, we hear about a shooting on the evening news, but it’s not in our part of town, so we move along to a sitcom.
“Because it’s so Much Fun!”
All of us like to see the bad guy get taken down in movies, and this could be a good thing. At least we can say that our sense of justice is awake and we can discern between good and evil. However, Tarantino’s movies sometimes differ on this front. Let’s look at two examples: In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the violence is taken out on people who are trying to commit murder, but Booth’s actions go far beyond self defense. The attackers were foolish teenage hippies who could have been stopped without being torched by a flamethrower. We’re supposed to laugh while these young, confused people get their heads smashed in?
Similarly, in Inglorious Basterds, we are all supposed to enjoy the scene in which a German soldier gets his brains bashed out with a baseball bat. With all the things that we know about the Nazis and the way that our world perceives justice, there is a certain expectation that people should enjoy watching a scene like that. Yet the victim of the baseball bat is not Hitler (although—spoilers—Hitler gets it later), but an ordinary German soldier. The other commandos sit by laughing and cheering during the scene.
These films go beyond the bad guy getting his just deserts. They revel in violence. What does it say about our culture that this is the kind of thing we enjoy? Tarantino is adamant that violence in movies doesn’t translate to people becoming violent in real life—he believes that there’s a clear difference. He may be right, but why do we enjoy watching other human beings getting mangled and tortured? Why does it make us laugh? It’s a little bit unsettling if you think about it.
What is Permissible?
The point of this article is not to recommend a particular standard for violence in movies—e.g. only violence in war movies is allowed, or anytime violence makes you laugh you shouldn’t watch it (the violence in Indiana Jones is supposed to make you laugh, after all). We could never draw a line that would satisfy everyone or encompass every argument, nor does the Bible give us a standard for violence in movies.
The point here is to practice discernment. If we want to know what God thinks about what we watch, we have to get to know God. And we do that not by prooftexting Scripture for verses that seem to condone our behavior, but by reading the Scriptures humbly, paying careful attention to what God cares about and what he hates. We also get to know God in prayer and in community with other believers.
As we get to know God, we get to know the things he cares about and we are better able to practice discernment every time we watch a film. Though the Scriptures don’t tell us anything about movies, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about what we watch. Some helpful questions to ask might be: What kind of things should we be putting into our minds? Is this movie’s message helpful? Does it make me more Christlike? (If you’re with friends) Is watching this movie causing a friend to stumble? Can I enjoy what this movie is, without compromising my beliefs? Specifically for this article, Is the violence in Quentin Tarantino’s movies something we should enjoy? Something we should laugh at?
In the end, we have an obligation to be discerning people led by the Holy Spirit. We can’t just count up the violent scenes in a film to determine whether or not we should watch it. It’s never that simple. After all, sometimes PG-13 movies do far more damage to our souls than R-rated movies do. That said, there is nothing wrong with rules and standards—these are very often a good thing—but too often we trust to rules and standards, when instead we ought to be listening to the voice of the Spirit in all things. Again, we only get to know that voice by listening for it in Scripture, in prayer, and in community.
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