September 8, 2008

The Art of Violence

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A couple of weeks ago I watched the Colin Farrell film In Bruges for the first time. The movie (which debuted at Sundance last January) tells the story of the depressed and ADD-addled Ray (Farrell), a neophyte assassin who has bungled his first assignment and is now hiding in the Belgian city of Bruges with his more experienced (and tranquil) colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson).
In Bruges is great for a number of reasons — it’s smart, it’s got great acting and it’s filled with funny British accents. But the thing I enjoyed most about the film was how it took a rather standard premise — two assassins on the run flirting with death — and turned it into a vehicle for serious reflection.
As I thought about why In Bruges affected me so much — it’s certainly the best movie I’ve seen all year (sorry, 10,000 BC) — I considered this relationship between plot and presentation. And I wondered why storylines like this one — assassins, killers and shoot-outs — are such a fixture of cinema.
Certainly one of the main reasons that violence is so popular with filmmakers is that, quite simply, it’s exciting. Moral qualms aside, most people feel their heart beat a little faster when they watch people try to kill each other. I’m sure that real bullets flying around are an adrenaline inspiring thing, and film can give us a taste of that excitement without all the extra baggage — you know, serious risk of death and whatnot. And so movie violence allows us to pretend we’re in a dangerous, testosterone-piquing situation without ever getting off the couch.
But blood and guts get boring when they serve no higher purpose. There’s far too many movies whose sole raison d’être is to delight in death (I don’t think I need to list examples). When violence is employed merely for its visceral effect, it’s useless as an artistic device.
So what is it, beyond simple shock value, that makes violence such an important aspect of filmmaking?
The answer, I think, is dramatic effect. Employ a little violence, set the stakes a little higher, and suddenly everything else in the movie — love, friendship, whatever — is made that much more fragile and vulnerable, and hence, more important. In Grosse Pointe Blank, for example, John Kusack plays an assassin who’s back in town for his high school reunion and a hit job. As bombs go off and bad guys try to kill him, his dalliance with an old flame takes on a whole new significance. Because if there’s no fear of death, what’s the rush?
This ability that violence has to throw everything else into relief heightens the effect of a film’s other elements. Comedy on a battlefield — think of the Scots baring their asses to the English in Braveheart — is just that much funnier. The Pitt-Jolie vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith was based entirely on this notion that just about anything (in this case, marital relations) is more interesting when surrounded by gunfire.
What’s more, everyone knows that a badass is more enchanting than a coward. When a movie presents its hero, that hero’s ability to inflict death will only add to his or her allure. Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill is a beautiful woman and a caring mother, but she’s also a hell of a killer — and we love her for it. Clint Eastwood as Blondie in the Dollars trilogy is adept at stacking up bodies, but he’s also virtuous and admirable; you can’t help but think that the first trait only amplifies the others. Facing death isn’t easy, and a hero who can meet that challenge deservedly wins our respect.
It is true, however, that violence can often be used in this way as a cheap trick. I’m no expert in the ways of the homicidal (it’s been years since I even broke a kneecap), but I doubt that there’s an abundance of high-minded murderers out there. Guns and gore are frequently used as a too-easy shortcut to excitement and drama.
But art has no obligation of verisimilitude. Sure, violence is about the least-innovative technique a filmmaker can employ, but works like In Bruges prove that even the old tricks can produce new results. And if violence is off-putting — as well it should be — then all the better. We don’t want our works of art to be easy.