In one of Quentin Tarantino’s most notoriously violent scenes, a double agent crash-lands a plane underwater in the culmination of a villainous plot. The agent has scuba gear and intends to swim to the surface along with the salvage scuba crew, which has come for the goods he’s hijacked. Buuuuut his seat belt is stuck. So he gestures to one of his companions to cut him free, and instead the guy reaches over and slashes through his air hose. You see the double agent thrash in panic as his airflow is interrupted. He dies horribly while his murderer swims away cheerfully.
OK, you got me. That isn’t actually from a Tarantino . It’s one of the more brutal scenes from Terence Young’s 1965 James Bond film Thunderball.
Quentin Tarantino is often considered an especially violent director. After the release of Django Unchained in 2013, for example, Terry Gross grilled him about his use of violence and asked if he felt guilty for portraying people getting shot after the Sandy Hook massacre.
Nobody asks Daniel Craig pointed questions about Sandy Hook in interviews, even though Bond films have a staggering body count.
Thunderball, for example, features 25 murders. Tarantino’s notoriously violent films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) show less than half as many deaths onscreen apiece. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) has only four. Skyfall (2012), the most recent Bond film, features 47. And, of course, other films have many, many more deaths; Star Wars (1977) includes the destruction of a planet, with millions blown to space atoms.
Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2013) manage to reach Bond levels of corpses. But still, that doesn’t exactly explain why Tarantino, right from the beginning, has been seen as a disturbingly violent, and possibly immoral, director, while the Bond films —or the Mission Impossible films, or for that matter many superhero films — depict numerous acts of violence and mayhem without causing anywhere near the same degree of handwringing.
Why is violence in Tarantino movies seen as horrifying and dangerous while in Bond films it’s just good, clean fun?
The main reason, I think, is that Bond films treat violence as good, clean fun while Tarantino does not. Tarantino acknowledges the ways in which violence is fun and makes you think about what it means to take pleasure in on-screen brutalization.
In Reservoir Dogs, for example, there’s an infamous torture scene in which Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop (Kirk Baltz), cutting off his ear. In terms of gore, pain and violence, the scene isn’t any worse than that Thunderball scene with the cut air hose.
What makes the sequence disturbing is the music. Tarantino sets the torture to Stealers Wheel’s groovy bubble-gum favorite “Stuck in the Middle With You”, and you watch Mr. Blonde boogie around the floor to the tune as he approaches the cop, knife in hand.
When Bond murders, it’s casually satisfying, often topped off with a light quip. You can enjoy it, because the bad guys are bad, and they should suffer for your amusement.
Tarantino creates a more complicated moral world, one where you aren’t assured that the people you hate are evil and deserve to have their air hoses slashed. He puts you in the head of a sadist and makes you feel your own pleasurable commitment to that sadism. The scene feels violent not because it’s more violent than standard action movie fare (it isn’t), but because it queasily highlights your enjoyment of the violence. Torture in Tarantino is treated as disturbing and presented as if it has moral connotations. People see this scene as violent not because it’s especially bloody but because it makes you think about the violence as violence, rather than simply as an amusing adrenalin rush.
Other supposedly very violent films have fallen afoul of a similar dynamic. Roger Ebert railed against the rape/revenge film I Spit On Your Grave (1979), insisting it was “an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human nature,” and that there was no reason to see it, “except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.”
Yet, there are many fewer deaths in I Spit On Your Grave than in Goldfinger (1964), and there are the same number of rapes—one.
The difference is that the rape in Goldfinger is presented as flirtatious good fun, while the rape in I Spit on Your Grave is shown as unbelievably horrible and traumatizing. Roger Ebert recoiled in disgust from the rape in I Spit, whereas the violence in Goldfinger led him to slap down a five-star review and cheerily praise the “sexy karate match” with Pussy Galore (Honor Blackmon) — a sexy karate match, which, again, ends with Galore’s rape.
“Not every man would like to be James Bond, but every boy would,” Ebert enthuses. A film that encourages young men to see rape as sexy is, somehow, more moral than one which imagines that the proper fate for a rapist is violent castration.
Mainstream, big budget films often go out of their ways to tame violence — to make it entertaining, fun and outside moral consideration or censure. In Age of Ultron (2015), a whole city is destroyed, and the conceit is that no one dies. Even the bad guys who are destroyed in great numbers are soulless robots. You can kill them, and it’s just a good laugh, with no greater meaning. Death and destruction pass across the screen without the pain of thought. Everyone is saved; no one (who matters) is hurt.
The point here is not that James Bond films are evil and should be banned, nor that Quentin Tarantino is a moral guide for our times. But I think it is worth questioning the conventional wisdom that says that violence onscreen is only bad, or is especially bad, when it disturbs us. A murder, a rape, or a drone strike should cause a little discomfort. Torture should make you wince, at least occasionally. And sometimes, maybe, if you’re going to kill someone onscreen, you should be willing to make it hurt.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.