Quentin Tarantino was born March 27, 1963, meaning he turns 48 today. In the almost two decades he’s been making films, he’s revolutionized independent film, inspired never-ending waves of talentless knock-offs, and made seven utterly fantastic films. Though the violence in Tarantino’s movies has generated a lot of press over the years, that is far from the only worthwhile thing about them; each one is a well-structured, stylish, and suspenseful work of art. No other filmmaker cuts straight to my pleasure center as immediately as Tarantino. Though they are different in many respects, Tarantino and Hitchcock share the knack for creating captivating, instantly iconic cinematic images.
Having said all that, certainly I wouldn’t want to bring it back to the violence…but yeah, I’m going to. Violence is a big part of Tarantino’s work, and just like characters in a musical break out into song when they get passionate, Tarantino’s characters often use violence to express themselves. So it being Tarantino’s birthday and whatnot, right after you watch the most recent episode of Community (granted, it’s more of a My Dinner with Andre spoof than a Pulp Fiction spoof, but still), check out my choices for the most shockingly violent moment in each of his films. And moreover, my thoughts on why they’re as shocking as they are.
Reservoir Dogs – “It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop.”
If someone asked me to name those movie characters who most embody evil, the first three that would come to mind are Hannibal Lecter, Regan from The Exorcist, and…Mr. Blonde, the gangster psychopath from Reservoir Dogs, played with demented flair by Michael Madsen, a B-grade actor giving one hell of an A-performance. The scene where Mr. Blonde, alone except for a dying Mr. Orange, tortures a cop is one of the most iconic and infamous in Tarantino’s oeuvre. Around the 30-second mark in the video embedded above, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel starts playing on the radio, and it’s like some sort of clarion call for Mr. Blonde to murder. Kneeling over Mr. Orange’s frail figure, he turns to the cop, smiles, then rises and starts dancing to the song. It’s one of the most casually terrifying bits of acting I’ve ever seen. But in focusing on the scene’s sheer horror, what a lot of people fail to realize is that it’s also fucking hilarious. It’s possible that I’m just a highly disturbed individual, but Mr. Blonde dancing, singing, and smiling his way through ear-slicing and gasoline-pouring is the kind of funny that also just so happens to be pretty damned scary. I remember the first time I saw it, when I was 12 or 13, I couldn’t help but start laughing. Then I immediately began wondering if I was going to go to hell. That’s what Quentin Tarantino movies will do to you.
Pulp Fiction – “Aw man, I shot Marvin in the face.”
Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s most popular and revered film, is host to a number of breathtakingly violent, weird moments: the pawn shop sodomy, the adrenaline injection straight to the heart, etc. While poor Marvin getting shot in the face doesn’t rank as the most intense or brain-searing moment in the film, it’s got the most comic punch. Again, here’s a shocking bit of violence that’s also really, really funny. And though, on the one hand, it’s horrible to laugh about a young man taking a bullet in the brain, at least I don’t feel any pangs of guilt here because I’m pretty sure everyone laughs at this scene except for nuns and grandmas. Gangsters Jules and Vincent are having a spiritual debate about whether or not God came down and stopped Alexis Arquette’s bullets from killing them, so Vincent turns around to ask Marvin his opinion…then accidentally shoots him in the face. Oh, that Vincent.
Jackie Brown – “What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.”
Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most low-key, understated film, and also his most criminally underrated. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. But even if it doesn’t have as plentiful a selection of jaw-dropping moments of violence as his other films, the ones it does have are very memorable. I almost chose the scene that directly causes this one, where Louis shoots Melanie in a mall parking lot for talking too much, but this one takes the cake for two reasons. One, it has a classically intense Tarantino build-up, where Ordell goes from disbelief that Louis actually shot Melaine; to suspecting that Louis gypped him out of the rest of his money; to realizing that Jackie Brown fucked him over; to unbridled anger that Louis didn’t realize Max Cherry’s presence at the mall was a red flag. Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell’s rapidly shifting spectrum of emotions wonderfully, in what might be tied with his turn as Jules in Pulp Fiction for his best performance. Two, I just love the way Robert De Niro dies. The gunshot comes almost as a punchline to Louis and Ordell’s bickering, and Louis just looks down and feels his wound resignedly. Lived a dope, died a dope.
Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2 – “You didn’t think it was gonna be that easy, did you?”
I remember, back before the decision was made to release Kill Bill as a two-part feature (which is all the rage now, what with Harry Potter and Twilight), they released a trailer for the full thing. Whatever movie I saw it before is inconsequential; that trailer changed me. It included the overhead shot of the Bride surrounded by the slowly encroaching Crazy 88. She moves her blade a fraction of an inch, and they jump back. That was it: I had to see every single Quentin Tarantino movie before Kill Bill came out. As should be obvious, I did. And the full House of Blue Leaves fight sequence did not disappoint as I sat in the front row on opening day. Tarantino just goes balls-out insane here, and the result is an orgiastic spectacle of violence which simultaneously plays as a loving homage to the Shaw Bros. films Tarantino so clearly adores. The fight choreography, by the renowned Yuen Woo-ping, is amazing; it takes a lot of practice to make that kind of chaos. Swords clash, assassins leap, limbs fly, and about 152 gallons of fake blood are spilled. Just ridiculous(ly awesome).
(The version embedded above, which also includes the Bride’s preceding fight with Gogo, is the original, uncut sequence, which is fully in color and is slightly more violent. The sequence was partially presented in black-and-white and lightly trimmed for American audiences in order to maintain an R rating. I can’t decide if the full-color version is better or not, as the black-and-white was done quite artistically.)
Death Proof – “Now I gotta catch me my other girlfriends.”
Just to get this out of the way: anyone who thinks that Planet Terror is the superior half of Grindhouse is cuckoo bananas. Yes, Planet Terror is a dizzying sugar-rush of a movie, but Death Proof is the one that lingers in your mind. Perhaps it’s because while Planet Terror fully embraces grindhouse schlock, Death Proof subverts it. Of course, that’s not before it offers up some of the same cheap, exploitative thrills that all manner of sleazy 70’s movies did–and I mean “cheap” and “exploitative” as kindly as possible. It’s sort of hard to watch this scene, in which Stuntman Mike (played by a grim, grinning Kurt Russell, never better) first murders a sweet blonde, then engineers the goriest, most violent car crash in movie history, in which he systematically kills each woman in the car. One is thrown into the air; another is killed on impact; another gets her legs yanked off; and another, well…the tire rides right over her face. It’s gruesome. Perhaps the most gruesome part, and this is something that Tarantino excels at again and again, is that part of you is terrified while another part of you is jumping for joy at the awe-inspiring build-up of tension and the grand execution of the violence itself. And if this sounds way too much to you like it glorifies violence towards women, well, Stuntman Mike gets his richly deserved comeuppance. The first group of ladies he chases after are unlucky; the second group are hardcore badasses who think–and are proven correct–that two can play Mike’s game. The victims turn the tables and render macho Mike here impotent and powerless. That’s the beauty of Death Proof.
Inglourious Basterds – “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.”
Firstly, I apologize that no decent version of this scene exists online. Well, there is one, but the genius who uploaded it decided to play “Mr. Blue Sky” over it for some fucking reason. Anyway. Inglourious Basterds is a brilliant revenge fantasy, one in which the Jews get to kill Hitler; and when that moment of reckoning comes, it is absolutely brutal. I saw Basterds three times in theaters and I’ve seen it a few more times at home, and each time, during this climactic scene, the chills running down my spine are overwhelming. The first time it was almost too much; I might have started shaking right then and there in the movie theater. If it’s not the best image Tarantino’s ever given us, and it might be, then the visual of the dead Shosanna’s cackling face on the movie screen as the entire world goes to hell around her is certainly the most haunting. Hitler and Goebbels getting gunned down is stunningly graphic, even for Tarantino, and the scene rivals the above one from Kill Bill for the highest body count in any one sequence from a Tarantino movie. He might be pushing 50, but the man has not become any less ferocious with age. In real life, violence is abhorrent; but in the cinema, it can be beautiful.
(And if you don’t believe me, check out this interesting Wikipedia page on the “aestheticization of violence.”)