Robbie Delany explores the depictions of violence with great expertise, a master of all things bloody and mutilated.
My parents, along with war vets and religious nuts, are likely to detest film violence. The tropes of people dying, bleeding and breaking on-screen. This is, of course, understandable. However, I need to make the distinction that film violence is as old as the cinema itself. The Lion King has more on-screen deaths than Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, as does Aladdin and The Wizard of Oz. Yet, you would never label these pictures as violent films. That is because the bloodshed is off-camera and implied. In other words, it is not graphic. Graphic violence is arguably the most condemned aspect of cinema. It focuses on a character trespassing into death, unashamedly exploring the manner in which they died. This could range from showing the impact of a bullet into the skin, to the body remains left after an explosion. Graphic violence, over M-rated violence is more devastating to both the characters and audience. By devastating, I mean has character and plot-changing consequences. Violence in Hollywood tentpole film franchises such as Transformers, Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible are awash with car crashes, explosions and gun fights. Superhero films, especially Marvel, have mastered a brute force-type violence depicted in hand-to-hand combat scenes. However, the violence in all of these films is non-consequential. The protagonists are not threatened by guns to their heads, nor will they die if thrown under a bus. The violence in these films is used for intermediate purposes, to spice up a scene transition. Why drive into town when you can jump out of an exploding plane? The story does not necessarily depend on the violence. The violence is fun in these films, but it is not all it can do. This is where graphic violence comes in.
In the opening scene ofShane Black’s The Nice Guys, Holland (Ryan Gosling) slits his wrist while trying to break into a house. Upon realising his mistake, he stumbles and the scene cuts to him in an ambulance. This use of violence in this scene is very awkward and reverses the momentum of the story, yet it also introduces Ryan Gosling’s character as a clumsy, semi-professional private detective. The violence is messy and improvised, because that’s what violence is like in real life. Subsequently, Holland wears a wrist guard throughout the duration of the film, providing a constant source of humour for the audience as those around him continuously comment on his lack of two functioning arms. Violence is thus used to animate and justify the characters, expressing their personalities, who they are or who they aspire to be. The effect would be less impactful if the cut was hidden outside the frame. To understand the character, we need to feel as he feels.
Quentin Tarantino is a director synonymous with graphic violence. Like the effect used in The Nice Guys, he serves violence for the expression of character. In Pulp Fiction, Vincent (John Travolta) accidentally shot Marvin in the face while driving on the freeway, exploding his head over the back windshield. Vincent responds dryly, annoyed as if he spilled a cup of coffee. However, his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) yells in anger and disdain towards Vincent’s actions. This violence cleverly echoes the characters’ personality. Vincent is heavy-handed and desensitized to killing, reflecting a life of “shoot first, think second”. Jules is juxtaposed as being conscientious and deliberate. Every action he commits has purpose. Tarantino also uses violence like sex, with tension acting as foreplay until erupting like an orgasm. Catharsis for the audience. When tautness builds to excruciating levels, something needs to give, like a spring in a gun. In Inglourious Basterds, pressure builds for twenty minutes in a bar scene between a Nazi and a British spy. Upon discovering his identity, calm will not do. The balls of the audience are too blue for that shit. Only an explosion will satisfy. Not an off-camera or comical flash of violence, but an outburst of blood. This is deserved violence, culminating as the bomb at the end of a very long fuse. Further dialogue will not satisfy.
A lesser known facet of film violence is body horror. In the late 70s to 80s, controversial issues such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and genetic engineering gave birth to new societal fears. Body horror, the sub-genre of intentionally showcasing graphic imagery of body mutilation, reflected these fears. Fears of what was inside us and could mutilate us. David Cronenberg is the undisputed master of this genre (weird flex), playing to audiences’ societal fears to extreme limits. His most famous film, 1986’s The Fly, follows Seth (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist who accidentally mixes his own DNA with that of a fly’s when attempting to teleport himself. As a result, his human body starts to grotesquely waste away and transform during the course of the film into a humanoid fly. Filmmakers return to body horror because it alludes to existential values, primarily the loss of one’s identity. Seth and his girlfriend’s (Geena Davis) relationship progresses with the story, from their first conversation to Seth’s death. As his body erodes, so too does their relationship. Like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Seth’s body is failing and beyond his control, affecting loved ones who want to help but are powerless. The true horror lies in the knowledge that one will lose themselves, first body then mind. Not the mutilation of one’s body. We share the cycle of entropy, our mind will fade, body degrade. Our only hope is that those after us will remember our names. But that’s what makes us human.
The final category of violence is torture porn, body horror’s unlikable cousin. Porn is the genre where sex is the point. Everything else, whether character or plot, is irrelevant. It portrays sex for the sake of sex, which is why audiences watch it. Torture porn is violence, gore and murder for its own sake. This is the Saw franchise, Hostel and Evil Dead. To say these films are violent is a complete misfire in using the English language, because a word has yet to be invented to describe their imagery. They are antagonistic and destructive, existing in a world where humans have been reduced to their animalistic instincts. Tragically, there is no purpose to the violence. The first Saw was effective for its labyrinthine, side-stepping plot. Yet, as it stretched to the 8th installment, the series lost appeal and purpose. Audiences cannot sympathize with a man tied down with no context, being sawn in half. Emotional investment is needed. Characters need dilemmas, caught in a whirlwind mystery where they need to battle elements. After discovering their goals and motivations, then the protagonist can get shot in the face. The objective of a film cannot be to simply escape a trap without human moments, like the relationship strain visible in The Fly. To my relief, torture porn is a dying medium. Each Saw release is less frequent, with fewer box-office receipts. These are directionless and belong in unmarked graves.
Graphic violence is designed to evoke or relieve emotion that M-rated violence does not satisfy. You need to see the blood to feel the character’s pain, worry or perspective that off-camera imagery cannot imitate. Though, it demands purpose and careful consideration.