By Dan Bayer
I wasn’t expecting to see Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” on consecutive days and then deal with “Ready Or Not” right before I was about to publish this. I also wasn’t expecting to be thinking about them a lot in relation to each other in the weeks to follow. But here we are, as the summer comes to a close, I can’t get either film out of my head. There are many reasons for this – cinematography, performances, runtimes that verge on being over-indulgent – but the main one is violence. In a world as violent as ours, it can sometimes be difficult for films to make violence impactful, but both Kent and Tarantino succeed spectacularly on that front. But each uses violence to very different ends, and I’m not sure they both justify the means.
**MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOTH “THE NIGHTINGALE” AND “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!**
“The Nightingale” is a brutal film. It is maybe the most difficult sit of the year. But even though it is unsparingly violent, it uses violence in impactful ways, first to set the plot in motion and provide motivation for the main character, and then to deepen that character and challenge her worldview. Clare getting raped while staring directly into the camera, daring the audience to climb into the film and save her, is one thing. Having her husband shot at point-blank range and her baby’s head bashed in while she’s getting raped AGAIN is another. It’s a turn of events so awful that Clare cannot even speak what happened out loud for the rest of the film. But after she survives, she has only one thought on her mind: Revenge. And she is single-minded in her pursuit of it. But when she finally does catch up with the soldiers and brutally murders the one who killed her baby in cold blood, it doesn’t take long for the realization of what she’s done to come crashing down around her.
It is at this moment that “The Nightingale” reveals its true nature: This is not a rape-revenge story, but a story about navigating the after-effects of unspeakable trauma. Clare realizes that not only did her bloody act of revenge not give her the peace of mind she was looking for, but that she has now committed an unspeakable act herself, and there’s no going back. There was some of her soul left after all, but now another piece of it is gone forever. She eventually catches up with the other soldiers again, but this time finds herself unable to take action. She is paralyzed both by seeing her serial rapist and by her memory of what she has done. She wrestles with her inaction, asking the Aboriginal tracker who has been helping her, Billy, what his people would do to a man so awful as her rapist. Over the course of their journey together, Billy and Clare have come to an understanding with each other that they have both suffered at the hands of the British soldiers colonizing the territory and that neither of them is better than the other. So when Clare asks this of Billy, she wants an honest answer. And he gives it to her: A man like that? They’d kill him. And that’s just what Billy does, getting mortally wounded himself in the process.
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is a languorous Sunday drive of a film. For 90% of its running time, it ambles around the Los Angeles of 1969 observing the people who live there. For the final fifteen or so minutes, however, it becomes a more recognizably Tarantino film: The audience is treated to an explosion of violence that feels like it’s from a whole other film entirely. In perhaps his most controversial decision in a film full of them, Tarantino turns the tables on Sharon Tate’s murderers and has Rick, Cliff, and Cliff’s dog inflict terrible violence upon them. The violence is over the top cartoonish. So over the top cartoonish, in fact, that it loops all the way back around to being horrifying. These are not your typical cold-blooded killers. They’re kids, naïve and brainwashed by a charismatic crazy man to do his dirty work. They can’t even do their job properly: They decide to kill Rick instead of whoever they’re supposed to kill in the house next door because, like, TV and movies are so violent, man, and it totally influenced their generation to become violent themselves, and inflicting violence on a man famous for violent films and TV shows would be, like, some deep meaningful shit, man.
Up until this point, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” has been about aging and watching the world change around you as you try and fail to keep up. And it has been noticeably free of violence. Coming as it does after two and a half hours of languid dialogue scenes about being an old man playing a young man’s game, the violence of the film’s last act is hugely impactful. And it should be: This was, by all accounts, a pivotal moment for Hollywood, and the end of innocence for a good portion of America. But the film clearly wants you to find this violence funny: It is staged and edited for laughs, and in my screening, it got a lot of them. But ramping up the violence – and the characters’ reactions to it – to such ridiculously cartoonish levels, with the would-be murderers brutally bashed, clawed, shot, bit, and set aflame while they can do nothing but flail around and scream in gut-wrenching agony, begs the question of how much is too much, and whether or not they actually deserve this?
But the film doesn’t deal with that question at all. Rick’s use of the flamethrower is meant to be a final cheer-worthy moment, and after he’s done with it, Cliff gets sent to the hospital to fix a gunshot wound. Rick promises to follow but gets derailed by an invitation to the Tate-Polanski residence next door, Sharon naturally wanting to hear all about what happened and offer some neighborly comfort. The perpetrators of such horrible violence (both straight cis white males, in a film, written and directed by a straight cis white male, it bears mentioning) are rewarded for their behavior. For inflicting absurd pain and suffering on characters we barely know who, yes, were going to kill them, but who ultimately proved to be only a step above complete bumbling idiots. The level of violence perpetrated on these characters is unnecessary, going too far for the characters and the film.
Contrast this violence with that of the just-released horror-comedy “Ready Or Not,” probably shot for shot the bloodiest film of the summer. The violence here is similarly cartoonish and gratuitously brutal. But being a horror film, it comes with a certain set of expectations that something like “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” does not. Horror films are made to scare us, and horror comedies to scare us in a fun way – they’re built around the adrenaline rush of a jump scare and the knowledge that everything on the screen is fake and thus we are safe. “Ready Or Not” doesn’t shy away from the violence that impacts our feelings towards characters (especially Samara Weaving’s plucky heroine), but most of its violence is aligned with the film’s clear goals: To make the audience cover their eyes, shout “GROSS”, and then laugh. Plop the same violent acts from “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s” finale into “Ready Or Not” and they aren’t nearly as uncomfortable, because the latter film is built around laughing at violence. We do not question whether or not (most of) the characters deserve what happens to them because the tropes of the horror genre tell us that some characters only exist to die, and others are villains who will get their comeuppance solely because they are the “bad guys” of the piece. It’s also worth noting that “Ready Or Not” actually takes the trouble to build into its narrative the question of how much certain characters are complicit in the violent acts, and thus how much they deserve what we know is coming to them by the finale, something “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” actively does not want us to consider. Tarantino seemingly wants us to root against the three would-be killers and cheer their brutally violent demises simply because of what they did in real life, presenting them as idiots to make it easier not to care. Likewise, he wants us to root for Cliff and Rick to brutally kill them simply because they are the main characters. It’s just as rigged of a game as “Ready Or Not” is playing, but “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is not a horror film, much less a horror-comedy. These are real, flesh-and-blood people, not fictional characters that only exist to entertain us, and the film’s sudden decision to become a comedic gore-fest is a disservice to both the film and the audience.
Whatever else you can say about the violence in “The Nightingale,” you certainly can’t say the level of it is unnecessary: It is meant to shock and appall and does so. But more than that, every strike and thrust and drop of blood means something to the characters. Jennifer Kent uses our collective bloodlust and desire for justice against us to tell a different story than the one we expected. In her film, revenge isn’t a dish best served cold, it’s an empty act that ultimately begets only more violence. In the world of the film, every action has consequences. In “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” the violence is ultimately meaningless, serving only to satiate our collective bloodlust and desire to see justice done. It turns the scary monsters of our nightmares into cartoonish buffoons and puts them through the wringer for our entertainment. There are no consequences, only a “happy” ending. The violence has no impact on any of the characters, partially because Rick and Cliff were drunk and high during it, but mostly because Tarantino wants to rewrite history to “save” Sharon Tate. To give her back her life in the only way he can.
I can see where this could be seen as noble, a filmmaker paying tribute to a promising young actress cut down too soon in life. But it doesn’t play that way. It plays as puerile, a raspberry and a “psych!” at the end of a film about coming to grips with one’s own mortality and a massive “fuck you” to the younger generation. Tarantino deeply wishes the world would stay the way he remembers it from his childhood and is willing to go to extremely violent lengths to bring that about in his film. But his memory isn’t reflective of what was happening in the world in 1969 – the Vietnam War, the Zodiac Killer, the Stonewall Riots – and the desire to stay in this pseudo-idyll feels dismissive of all the awakenings that were happening in the world at that time. Tarantino backtracks massively on his film’s apparent message with its ending, to the film’s detriment.
Jennifer Kent, meanwhile, is wading deep into the waters of colonialism, and finding them quite murky indeed. Billy sacrificing himself to do what Clare cannot, and keep any more blood from getting on her hands, while handled with grace and compassion, cannot entirely escape the trope of a black man dying to save a white woman. But Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals has been an albatross around the nation’s neck for decades, something they haven’t reckoned with or even looked at, really. “The Nightingale” may lay on the brutality a bit thick, but it has a clear purpose: Look at what you did the native people of this land. Look at the way you treated women. Look at the way you treated “outsiders.” Learn from this. Grow. Learn empathy and compassion, and move forward.
The violence in both films is difficult to watch and perhaps even more difficult to reckon with. But while Tarantino uses it as a sick joke to fulfill a fantasy, Kent uses it to make a point and to ultimately make a plea for mercy. The violence in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is “cool” and meant to elicit laughs, whereas the violence in “The Nightingale” is disturbing and meant to make the viewer feel sick. As the world around us becomes more and more full of violence and hatred, films like “The Nightingale” that use violence similarly to how “Requiem for a Dream” uses drugs – as a warning, a cautionary tale, an appeal to the audience to be better – feel far more urgent and necessary.
You can follow Dan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @dancindanonfilm