A few nights ago, I was watching Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) and I was thinking that if I ever tell anyone I watched this movie I risk losing any credibility I ever had. But something about the movie was bothering me, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Now before you ask: No, the movie wasn’t good. Nor was it so-bad-it’s-good. Actually, it was downright mediocre. It wedged itself comfortably into its space as a focus-grouped product that exists as an investment, not a meaningful piece of art. No, what stuck with me was how violent the movie was, and how tonally disparate that violence was from the rest of the movie.
The characters in Hansel and Gretel seem to have shown up for a fun buddy cop version of the story, and yet there is bloody dismemberment, the crushing of a person’s head, and even an onscreen suicide by way of sawed-off shotgun. The witch hunters in the movie make no bones about killing witches. Jeremy Renner’s Hansel even offers this tired cliché: “The only good witch is a dead witch.” And to that end, the movie’s portrayal of the witches is pretty lazy. They might as well be robots or zombies or some other bullet sponge lacking in personality and with whom the audience will never relate. The movie wants to be a dark fairy tale – which were all the rage at the time of its release, with movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror preceding it. It wants to be an exciting action movie featuring wire stunts and extended chase scenes. Instead of these ideas merging, the movie is tonally all over the place, making it difficult to know how we should perceive the violence onscreen. Should we be horrified? Or excited by its slickness? Or is it supposed to be funny? The brutal violence is jarring not because it’s pointed, but because it seems to come from nowhere and go nowhere. The problem is that when violence is stripped of consequence it is only spectacle, and at that point is equivalent to a Busby Berkeley dance number.
This has dangerous implications for our perceptions of violence. Desensitization is not just a buzz word. Movie ratings are always harsher on sex than violence. I’m not saying anything new here. There was a study that came out late last year showing that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled in the last thirty years. One only need go to the movies to see the prevalence of violence.
This is not to say that we should censor all violence in movies. Violence can be used to great effect. In Michael Haneke’s slow going thriller Cache, there is a single scene of violence late in the film that brings the protagonist’s conflict to a truly satisfying climax. The movie is about a man who is receiving cryptic tapes of his house being filmed from across the street. Eventually we find out that the tapes are related to a terrible thing he did as a child, and now his chickens have come home to roost. When he finally tries to confront his past, he finds despair and an extreme act of violence. The violence is directly connected to the guilt from his past and his inability escape it. Haneke is using this personal story to talk about a larger historical event as well: the 1961 massacre of Algerians by Paris police. So Haneke’s use of violence is two-fold. He uses the onscreen violence in the present to confront the atrocities of the past.
Violence need not only come in small doses for it to be meaningful. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Palme D’or nominated Drive is a formal exercise about the portrayal of violence. In the scene below, the ‘coolness’ of the violence is immediately followed by the horrific reality of that violence.
In this sequence, Refn gives us both sides of the equation. He satisfies our desire for no-strings-attached violence. Our desire for empowerment through the spectacle of violence. He frames it beautifully, and it comes directly after the Driver and Carey Mulligan finally kiss, one of the only moments of connection between any two characters in the movie. The warmth and peace of that elevator is suddenly shattered – along with that guy’s skull – and we bask in it. Then what does Refn do? He turns around and implicates us in that violence. We get a full on shot of the monster that the Driver is and in him we see ourselves. Refn builds to this moment all movie long with high speed car chases and slow motion gun fights. He consistently tells that we can revel in the action. And that’s what most action movies are telling us. Refn takes advantage of our trust to talk about our expectations of violent spectacle in movies and expose it for the horror that it is.
Quentin Tarantino springs to mind here as well. The violence in his films is understandable to the extent that he is making crime films or revenge films or, more recently, historical revenge films, and violence is an acceptable part of those worlds. He allows us to revel in the violence but unlike Refn, he doesn’t turn that on its head. For Tarantino, violence can be an end unto itself, and as a film geek, a stylistic choice that is an homage to film at large. But when it comes to bloodshed, Tarantino isn’t timid. Anyone who’s seen Kill Bill Vol. 1, Inglorious Basterds, or Django Unchained can attest to that. Let’s take Django for a moment. Django Unchained is an American Slavery Revenge movie that climaxes in a bloody gunfight which functions as Tarantino giving the whole of American Slavery its comeuppance.
The reason why the violence of this scene works is because Tarantino commits to a consistent tone throughout the film. This is a revenge movie and whether or not you agree that Django’s revenge is right, Tarantino has built up to this inevitable climax. Even if you are conflicted about the overkill in this scene, it’s clear what Tarantino is going for: he wants you to enjoy Django’s vengeance. The violence in Django is an aesthetic choice made by Tarantino to serve the ends of his story. Perhaps commitment to this choice is something that a blockbuster like Hansel and Gretel can’t make. In its efforts to be universally appealing and financially successful, it can’t commit to anything. Cache, Drive, and Django Unchained are all movies made by auteurs who are attempting to say something. Hansel and Gretel is a product by way of movie, attempting to say nothing. The former use violence as a tool to tell their story and to illuminate their points. The latter only uses violence as a spectacle which can draw more revenue.