Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quentin Tarantino and the violence of restraint

with 3 comments

Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs

I have a friend who hates Reservoir Dogs. He’s willing to grant that some of Quentin Tarantino’s other movies have merit, but refuses to rewatch this particular film, mostly on account of its violence—which, he says, he found increasingly hard to take after he had children. I can understand what he means. In the case of my own daughter, I’m still working out what kinds of media she’ll be watching at what age, and while I definitely plan to introduce Beatrix to the joys of Pulp Fiction and the two movies about her namesake at the right time, I might give Reservoir Dogs a pass. I liked it plenty when I first saw it, but I haven’t been tempted to revisit it in a long time, and these days, I think of it mostly as an inventive and resourceful debut that paved the way for the astonishing career to come. (The recent Vanity Fair oral history of the making of Pulp Fiction just serves as a reminder of how deeply influential Tarantino has been, even as his influences and innovations are absorbed into invisibility by the culture as a whole.)

And although I understand my friend’s point about the violence in Reservoir Dogs, what lingers with me, weirdly, is Tarantino’s restraint. Take the movie’s most notorious sequence. When I think of it today, what I remember is not so much the violence as two amazingly assured shots. The first is the moment when the camera turns aside as Mr. Blond prepares to hack off the cop’s ear, tracking away to focus on a nondescript corner of the room as we listen to the screams coming from just offscreen. It’s a startlingly subjective camera move, as striking in its way as the moment in Taxi Driver when Scorsese pans away from Bickle’s telephone rejection from Betsy, and reflects Tarantino’s understanding that such things are more effective when left to the imagination. Even better is the shot immediately afterward, when Mr. Blond leaves the warehouse, crosses a peaceful street in silence, retrieves a gas can from his car, and returns, all in a single unbroken take that ends back in the room where “Stuck in the Middle With You” is still playing. Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club has sung this shot’s praises, and it’s one that still knocks me out, more than fifteen years after I first saw it.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Given this kind of filmic grace, which Tarantino had in spades before he even turned thirty, it’s instructive to turn to Django Unchained, which I finally caught over the weekend. (I liked it a lot, by the way, although it strikes me as one of his less essential movies, somewhere above Death Proof and below Jackie Brown.) Django has also aroused controversy over its violence, and while I wouldn’t want to argue that it isn’t a violent movie, here, too, I’m more struck by its restraint than anything else. This is partly because it’s the first movie in which Tarantino hasn’t done deliberate violence to the medium of storytelling itself: the plot proceeds in a linear fashion, without any of the structural games we find in his previous work, and the boundary between good and evil is much more clearly delineated than usual. Even if we hadn’t been clued in by the fact that audiences, for the most part, seem to be embracing the movie, there isn’t a lot of doubt about how this particular revenge story will conclude. And although Tarantino doesn’t shy away from the blood squibs in his climactic shootouts, he’s even more careful here in his use of violence than usual.

Django Unchained takes place in a violent time, with plenty of human misery inherent to the story, but it doesn’t linger over scenes of cruelty and torture. Tarantino gives us these moments in flashes, just long enough to lock them in the mind’s eye, and doesn’t deal with sexual violence at all, except by implication. Which doesn’t mean he shies away from the implications of the material. The film’s most memorable scene is the long monologue by Samuel L. Jackson—who gives what I think is the supporting performance of the year—in which he coolly explains how a living death in the mines, to which slaves are routinely condemned, is far more cruel than any torture Django’s captors could invent. Tarantino knows the difference between the violence of history and that of escapism, and it’s fascinating to see a film in which they exist so casually side by side. Sometimes his canniness goes a little too far: when Django engages in one killing that might make him seem unsympathetic, he instructs the bystanders to tell the victim goodbye, and when he fires, the body is jerked offscreen by what can only be a stagehand with a length of piano wire, leaving it conveniently out of sight for the rest of the scene. It’s a cheap gag, but done with the artistry that separates Tarantino, not just from his imitators, but from his precursors. And like it or not, that’s the mark of a master.

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

3 Responses

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  1. From Dusk To Dawn was the Tarantino movie that I couldn’t stomach. It felt like he did with evil what he usually does with violence, and it was way too much to take!

    I kind of loved Reservoir Dogs, though. It has the sort of amoral…poignancy? (I guess?) which always reminds me that I still need to watch The Godfather.

    sparksmcgee

    February 12, 2013 at 10:31 am

  2. Apparently Leonardo Di Caprio had a hard time coming to terms with just how awful his character, Candie, was. He really had to push himself to play such a horrible person well.

    strawberryquicksand

    February 13, 2013 at 12:51 am

  3. @sparksmcgee: From Dusk Till Dawn is probably the worst thing that has Tarantino’s name attached to it—and I remember really looking forward to it at the time!

    @strawberryquicksand: I can believe that. Although DiCaprio also looks as if he’s having a great time.

    nevalalee

    February 13, 2013 at 9:54 am


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