Film, due to its nature as a visual medium is obsessed with the notion of spectacle. Many modern blockbusters thrill audiences with giant CG creations, massive explosions, shootouts and violent fist fights. However, as cool as these things look is there something far more problematic underneath the surface of how violence is presented in the cinema?
Let us take a look at a very typical scene. While not from the modern era of action film, the Wachowskis’ Matrix includes all the tropes that we can see in many other films before and after it. In the scene we see Neo and Trinity entering a building where the agents are holding Morpheus hostage. Look at the way the scene is constructed. It is clear and choreographed; we can always tell where the heroes are in relationship to the guards and their surroundings, despite the frenetic editing and the hail of bullets and debris. The action looks cool, the heroes gracefully move through the carnage, virtually invisible.
They look amazing as well with theirlong black coats and sunglasses . But this scene is more than its aesthetics. The audience knows why the action is unfolding; Neo and Trinity are rescuing their friend from the antagonists, namely Agent Smith, with low level guards providing an obstacle to the entrance of the building. The violence feels justified as we understand and sympathise with the motivation of the main characters.
But if we look a little closer something troubling appears. Despite the efforts of the film to dehumanise the guards, they all wear a uniform that covers their face, the guards are still people, people stuck in the matrix, people doing a job. Despite this an audience routes for the destruction of innocent lives at the hands of the heroes. Cinematic violence looks attractive, so attractive that it has been blamed for many mass shootings. If that is the case, and I am not going to argue either way as that would need an entire series presented by someone far more qualified than myself, then how would we de-aestheticise film violence?
When looking at violence it is useful to consider three separate points; the perpetrators of violence, who are they and why are they doing it; the victims of the violence and the consequences and outcomes of the violence. With this frame work in mind we can move on to discuss 2 films that I think provide perfect examples of how violence can be deglamourized.
The first example that reveals the reality behind violent acts is Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant. Inspired by the Columbine School shootings is a quiet, beautiful film. The main action of the film takes place over the course of a single school day, repeating itself as the audience follows different students as they make their way toward the violent climax of a mass shooting. Let’s bring out the framework we have set ourselves; who are the perpetrators of violence and why are they doing it? Well the first question is easier to answer than the second. Alex and Eric, two high school outcasts, are the ones committing the violence; however it is made purposefully ambiguous as to why they are doing it. Van Sant offers us multiple reasons as to why the two are doing what they are doing, but these aren’t satisfactory, the film in fact seems to be more of a deconstruction of media coverage of violent acts. So the violence cannot be justified, it is mass murder, although that does not make the two shooters or at least Alex anyway, unsympathetic. It is clear that they are disadvantaged, and that they have been bullied but they do care about other people as seen when Alex warns John not to go into the school.
Most of the other students and faculty members are the victims of the violence that Alex and Eric dish out but, unlike the faceless guards in The Matrix, due to the structure of the film we do know them as people, as we have watched their lives unfold and in some cases end. This is perhaps down to the way in which the audience interacts with the film through the camera; it is shot in high angle long takes that seem to follow slightly behind the subject, kind of like a video game.
Elephant places the audience as an omnipresent being, who chooses to watch the events. This allows the audience to check itself, for example there are a group of three teenage girls, who go around the film talking trash about other students. These three meet their end in the bathroom and there is a sense of karmic intervention in the scene. However this is the only scene like it in the film and it sticks out like a saw thumb, telling the audience that what they are feeling is wrong and they should consider why they feel that way. While the consequences of the violent shoot out are not shown in Elephant, it is the absence of the violence that is perhaps the most telling. We only see two or three deaths. The violence itself at the end makes up a small percentage of the run time and even then, it is less shooting more running. It is not constant, it is not cool. Alex and Eric are not gracefully dancing through a barrage of enemy fire, they are massacring innocent people. It becomes brutally real and because of the camera angle, which is similar to a video game perspective, the audience becomes involved and unable to turn away. The consequences of Alex actions are heavily implied, but the way in which he acts and the way in which they are presented allows the audience to be confronted with the reality of violence.
The second example is far more mainstream in its construction. In David O. Russels 1999 war film Three Kings Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney and Ice Cube are attempting a major gold robbery, then getting tangled up in a civil war between Sadam Hussain’s army and rebels after the gulf war. So who is it that enacts violence? Well this one is a little harder to answer, but the short answer is, everyone for a multitude of reasons. While many war films have their violence automatically justified by nature of being a war film, O. Russel’s American soldiers are purposefully presented as unheroic. From the very opening till the closing, they are seen as ignorant, irresponsible, racist, unsympathetic, over masculine and unlikable. The main character’s motivation is to steel a country’s gold, for personal gain, and they plan to leave Iraqis to be executed by their military. While this then changes to saving Iraqi rebels from a tyrannical ruler, this does not make them justifiable at the start. At the end of the film though the three main characters redeem themselves by helping the rebels across the border despite the orders of superior officers and their own safety. Most of the Iraqi soldiers are also unsympathetic, however O. Russel’s inclusion of Captain Said allows audiences to see beyond the foreign language and military uniform to true empathy with a character’s emotions. When Troy Barlow, Wahlberg, is being tortured Captain Said reveals that his home was bombed by the Americans, killing his wife and child. Barlow, who also has a young family then imagines what that would be like. This small amount of backstory allows the audience to see from multiple perspectives and perhaps understand that even the enemy soldiers have their own characters and motivation. Everyone also seems to be the victim of violence in the film; even the heroes. Barlow is tortured and shot, and has to go through the rest of the film with a punctured lung; a main character is killed, as well as countless Iraqi rebels and soldiers. As already mentioned Captain Said’s backstory seems to give most of the victims more depth than just a stunt man falling down. Indeed the first major shoot out starts with a very emotional point when a rebel woman is executed in front of her husband and daughter. This scene from the film is also a good example showing the consequences of the violence in the film. After a tense confrontation, an Iraqi soldier fires at Archie Gates, Clooney, leading to a full shoot out. However the construction of the scene allows the audience to see both the physical and the psychological effects of the gun fight.
The audience see clearly who fired the shot and who was shot. The sound is muted and the framerate drops dramatically. Then when Gates shoots the main soldier in the head it is hyper saturated slow-motion, time seems to distend and contract. What the audience is made painfully aware of is the trail of cause and effect, one shot causes another and so on, violence begets more violence. Other parts of the film show the consequences of violence in slightly more gruesome detail. At the start of the film Barlow shoots a surrendering soldier from far away and it is shown that the man is dying slowly drowning on his own blood. Gates describes sepsis caused by a bullet wound, we see the bullet penetrate all the way through. Similarly when Troy is shot in the lung we see exactly what is happening and experience what is happening as his lungs collapse. The audio fades and all we can hear is a man trying to breath. The audience is shown in graphic detail the realities of violence and war. While many directors would have just shrugged and attributed the violence to the situation soldiers find themselves in what O. Russel does is in Three Kings is reveal the chaos, complexity and absurdity of such a traumatic event.
Film is able to show fantasy, but it is also able to explore the reality behind that fantasy. Violence is a terrible thing that film all too quickly relies upon for excitement without thinking about those involved and the consequences. There are some films though that help deglamourize film violence through confronting the audience with a more truthful representation and hopefully allow audiences to think more deeply about the people on the wrong side of the hero’s weapon.