Grace Juli Earl
Multi-award winning director Quentin Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on March 27, 1963. He dropped out of Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California, at the age of sixteen to pursue film making and his career began working as a clerk in a video store in the state’s Manhattan Beach area. His first feature length film, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival and some of his best-known other works include Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Quentin Tarantino’s films are often noted for their use of gratuitous violence and three of his most acclaimed films, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds, treat violence in an unusual fashion. Unlike other ‘gangster’ moves or action thrillers, Tarantino’s work is rarely concerned with “violence for the sake of violence”. Instead, Tarantino uses violence to give his characters’ depth and personalities which make such bloody content more morally justifiable. The most horrific (and memorable) scenes of the aforementioned movies – Pulp Fiction’s rape scene, the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, and the closing scene of Inglourious Basterds – show that even the most disturbing acts of violence can serve a highly moral purpose. Ultimately, Tarantino is extremely wayward in his treatment of the subject as abhorrent acts such as rape and murder are manipulated to serve as moral guides within Tarantino’s intricately-constructed plots.
Pulp Fiction: Sodomy, Swords and Sympathy
The rape scene in Pulp Fiction is an important moment of a movie defined by its bloodshed as it shows the limits to which even the most violent people can be pushed. Despite the fact Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) has just been trying to kill former boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), when he finds Marsellus being raped by ‘two hillbilly sadomasochists’ (Davis 63), he sets about freeing Marsellus using a samurai sword to punish the rapists. In light of an act as emasculating and humiliating as brutal sodomising rape, Butch is unable to leave his former enemy to suffer and inevitably be killed. This suggests that Butch is a wholly moral character but, prior to this scene, Butch had already tried to murder Marsellus and had gunned down Vincent Vega (John Travolta), using Vincent’s own gun.
It seems extremely unusual that Butch would help his sworn enemy through saving his life and affording him the satisfaction of torturing and killing the rapists himself. This shows that Tarantino uses violence to award his characters with senses of justice and morality, rather than to fashionably depict them as masculine or ‘cool’ like in other gangster movies. Instead, violence often seems like justifiable behaviour throughout Pulp Fiction as Tarantino humanises his characters in other ways. The viewer is able to relate to characters like Butch from a moral standpoint as he becomes a “hero” through saving Marsellus and shows genuine compassion and affection towards girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). Meanwhile, the other two central figures in the movie, Vincent and partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are more than just small-time gangsters; they are amusing, down-to-earth characters whom the audience can relate to through their conversations involving European McDonald’s (“a royale with cheese”) and the ethics of foot massages. Davis (61) argues that:
‘These moments in their fictional representation afford Vincent and Jules with the trappings of verisimilitude, rendering them into fully realised human characters, rather than mere gangland caricatures. In short, we discover ourselves laughing with them while viewing Tarantino’s film because – aside from the weapons and drugs that mark their world – many of their thoughts and concerns seem not so different from our own’.
This shows that Tarantino’s depiction of Pulp Fiction’s underworld forces the viewer into waywardly appreciating its characters as more than just violent gangsters. Instead, Butch is presented as a figure that uses violence as a means of inflicting moral justice, whereas Vincent and Jules’ violent acts are made easier to digest as Tarantino uses popular culture to coerce his viewer into warming to the characters.
This scene shows that Tarantino feels, in some cases, extreme violence is the most effective solution to a problem. Butch’s process of choosing his weapons, eventually deciding upon the most horrific option available (the Katana sword), shows that he wants to inflict maximum damage upon the rapists. With the honour and pride of Marsellus being so disgustingly compromised, it can only take bloody violence on Butch’s part to rectify the situation and save “innocent” Marsellus. In a situation as extreme as this, violence is the only form of redemption and salvation for Butch and Marsellus.
Reservoir Dogs: Triumph within Torture
Reservoir Dogs was initially banned in the UK as its now-infamous ear cutting scene was deemed too horrific for British audiences. In this scene, Mr. Blonde uses a razor to hack off the ear of an innocent cop the gang has captured after their botched diamond heist, whilst dancing nonchalantly to Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel. He then proceeds to douse the cop in petrol before being suddenly shot dead by Mr. Orange, who had been previously unconscious lying in a bloody heap on the floor of the warehouse where the action is taking place.
McKinney (16) argues that in Reservoir Dogs, ‘Violence has emerged as thematic matter, the true meat even of movies that claim to be about something else’ and this is interesting in relation to Mr. Blonde. Even the other ‘Dogs’, themselves violent criminals, feel that there is a vast difference between their ‘professional’ behaviour and that of ‘psychopathic’ Blonde, as Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) declares that ‘psychopathic ain’t a professional’. Blonde is depicted as a character completely devoid of moral reasoning, as shown by the uneasy way in which he dances around the warehouse without a care in the world before torturing an innocent man.
Tarantino is using his characters, then, to suggest that violence is subject to restrictions. He attempts to imply that morality exists even within organised crime gangs, whom society would deem as the most violent group of people. Although at this point in the movie this link is tenuous, as White seems to be most concerned by the personal security threat that Blonde’s behaviour poses, the ear cutting scene certainly validates this idea. Tarantino takes waywardness to a new extreme in Reservoir Dogs as he uses the most violent section of the movie to create its biggest offering of morality.
It is safe to say that the violence in the first part of this scene makes even the strongest of viewers feel uncomfortable. The ease with which Blonde cuts off the ear of the cop – dancing and singing only seconds beforehand – shows us that in certain cases, Tarantino depicts violence as sadistic and senseless. However, the ear-cutting shows the evil lurking within Mr. Blonde’s character and, as Mr. Orange shoots him multiple times, the viewer feels a sense of triumph. The innocent cop’s life is saved, showing that the murder of Blonde is justified.
Inglourious Basterds: The Revenge of the Repressed
Tarantino’s creation of a counterfactual historical narrative in Inglourious Basterds allows for his use of violence to be more than just an expression of morality, like in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Here, through empowering Jews against the Nazis, Tarantino creates a version of World War II which is extremely different from the truth. He subverts American understanding of the war as, although America was aware of the Holocaust, the US focused its war involvement on helping the Allied soldiers and did little to prevent the Holocaust from taking place. Through his creation of the Basterds –a guerrilla fighting unit of American Jews – Tarantino creates a historical fantasy in which the use of violence allows the oppressed to emerge victorious, whilst utterly reversing the devastation which the Holocaust had upon Jews. Richard Brody suggests that:
‘What Tarantino seems to be fantasizing about is this: What if Jews had succeeded in scaring Germans, in being known to pose fearsome physical threats to those who harmed them? Would it have altered the behaviour of the German government and its officials and soldiers in ways that could have led more quickly to Germany’s defeat?’
This supports the idea that Inglourious Basterds uses violence to challenge entire historical events. The movie is far more than just a war film; essentially, it is about using violence to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as war often subverts the boundaries between the two sides.
Other critics have suggested that the role of the Basterds is too farfetched to be taken seriously. Ben Walters (21) suggests that, ‘The Basterds are war criminals, explicitly denying Nazis’ humanity, targeting them for summary execution, and desecrating their corpses by scalping’. When we consider that Lt. Raine (Brad Pitt) continually states that the Basterds are ‘in the business of killing Nazis’, Walters’ perception seems accurate. However, this does not mean that the viewer despises the Basterds for their actions; in fact, the viewer does not falter from supporting the Basterds’ use of extreme violence against the Nazis. As the movie concludes, with Raine declaring ‘this might just be my masterpiece’ before carving a swastika into the forehead of Nazi Colonel Landa, the viewer can only be satisfied that the Basterds have emerged as triumphant.
As Inglourious Basterds ends, the balance between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys is restored through brutality. In the mind of Lt. Raine, it is unfeasible that Col. Landa – responsible for murdering thousands of innocent Jews – will be able to escape to America. Raine therefore carves the swastika into Landa’s head so that, no matter how his life progresses, Landa will never be able to hide his Nazi past. Tarantino uses the scalping as a means of eternal revenge as he ensures that, even though the war may end, Landa is left with a physical reminder of the atrocities he committed. Violence ensures that Landa will never be able to forget his role as the “bad” guy.
Brody, R. “Guts and Gloury.” The New Yorker 18 August 2009. Article.
Davis, T. “‘Shepherding the Weak’: The Ethics of Redemption in Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’.” n.d. JSTOR. PDF Article. 18 December 2012.
McKinney, D. “Violence: The Strong and the Weak.” Film Quarterly (1993): 16-22.
Walters, B. “Debating ‘Inglourious Basterds’.” Film Quarterly (2009): 19-22.
Coulthard, L. “Torture Tunes”: Tarantino, Popular Music, and new Hollywood Ultraviolence. Music and the Moving Image (2010): 1-7.
Rennett, M. “Quentin Tarantino and the Director as DJ.” n.d. JSTOR. PDF Article. 18 December 2012.
Slotkin, R. “Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America.” Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.