Arts Review

Blood and Gore

Sitting down to write this column, it occurred to me that of the numerous films I’ve seen in recent months, the most interesting were three extremely violent ones. Two of them are by veteran American directors who have specialized in brutality throughout their careers: Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood) and Martin Scorsese (The Irishman). The third filmmaker is a South Korean, Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite employs violence in a peculiarly creative manner.

Americans probably invented casual screen violence—they’re certainly made to take the rap for it in international popular opinion. But other cultures now seem to be leaving us behind. When the editor of this magazine, for instance, asked me to cover a festival of Spanish films a few years ago, I had to give up on the project; each of the movies I tried was so viscerally savage, and without much apparent purpose, that I was appalled. And I’ve been informed that while Bong Joon-ho’s new film is outstanding on artistic grounds, it is not unusual in its onscreen bloodiness; recent Korean films are noted for it. Bong himself has commented on a qualitative difference between American and Korean violence: “We have no guns in our society. So our gangsters [in the movies] have blades. They use the knives that sushi chefs use. That’s actually scarier and more extreme. Being so close before shoving a knife into someone, there’s an intimacy with the closeness, much more so than in a gun fight . . . slicing through a body is so much more terrifying paired with the sound of a blade cutting through flesh.”

Violence, like every other quality, must have a thematic purpose within the overall plan of the movie if it is to be useful or meaningful. Up until now I have felt that Tarantino used it simply for its own sake or as a shallow and facile commentary on American culture, pop or otherwise, and I got bored with his movies. A friend insisted that I get over this bias and see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. The film moved and enchanted me, and when the violence eventually arrived, as one knew all along it would, it was so richly deserved—and, for the most part, not quite realistic—that I saw it as part of the happy ending. Or is that supposed to be Tarantino’s trick on me, the common viewer—that I’m fine with violence as long as the right people are on the receiving end?

It’s impossible to write about any of these films without spoilers, so I’ll go ahead and tell all. Once Upon a Time takes place in Hollywood in 1969 and builds up to the Sharon Tate murders. In the end, the Manson killers go to a different house and are themselves hideously killed. Why did historical revisionism, which I hated in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, not bother me here? Perhaps because so many viewers today don’t really know what happened in World War II and the American Civil War, and the reality of those conflicts is vastly more important and interesting than anything Tarantino could concoct. The Tate murders, on the other hand, were not an historically important event but a meaningless tragedy that could so easily not have happened—as in Tarantino’s counter-history it doesn’t happen. Joan Didion might have been indulging in hyperbole when she suggested that the sixties died that night; as I remember it, they seemed to go on a few more years, perhaps until the American withdrawal from Vietnam. But the pointless ugliness of the killings did seem to bring a thoughtless, hedonistic period to an end.

Of course many of today’s viewers don’t know anything more about the Tate murders than they do about World War II. Few people under the age of fifty-six—Tarantino’s own age—will recognize the thousands of references to pop culture that embellish Once Upon a Time. As much as anything, the film is a love letter to the era, although not to the counterculture. Instead, Tarantino draws us irresistibly into the rich junk culture of the period—its cheesy TV shows, icons, ads, fashions, movies, hairstyles.

He’s injected two fictional characters into this rich stew. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV star on the way down. Never an A-lister—his claim to fame is as the title character in a hokey Western show called Bounty Law—he has now, in his late thirties, descended to playing heavies on other stars’ Westerns. And worse is on the horizon; an enterprising agent (Al Pacino—playing Jewish!) has persuaded him that the only thing left for him is to go to Italy to make spaghetti Westerns, a step Rick sees as the final humiliation. Prematurely running to fat, self-pitying, easily reduced to tears, Rick is precisely the opposite of his macho cowboy image. But his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), fills the bill much better: he’s the genuine Dirty Harry, Marlboro Man, a cool badass. Rick has had his driver’s license revoked, presumably for too many DUIs, and Cliff has to drive him everywhere. The relationship between the two of them is a perfect illustration of the traditional Hollywood hierarchy: Rick lives in a comfortable spread in Benedict Canyon, with a pool, while Cliff makes do with a nasty little trailer near a drive-in; Cliff acts as Rick’s handyman and general factotum as well as driver; when they travel together, he rides in tourist class while Rick sips champagne in first. While they are best friends—Rick calls Cliff “more than a brother but less than a wife”—each of them accepts the situation without question. And of course Rick himself is not all that high on the industry’s totem pole. Next door to him, but on elevated ground and behind an automatic gate, live Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the “it” couple of the moment. Rick, like a serf living in the shadow of the lord’s manor, would never presume to approach or greet them; he simply gawps at them from their shared driveway as they speed by in Polanski’s little sports car.

The movie’s pace is leisurely as we accompany Rick and Cliff to Rick’s various professional engagements. They cruise aimlessly up and down Sunset Boulevard; Rick dances on Hullabaloo; Cliff matches martial arts skills with Bruce Lee. A significant amount of time is devoted to Rick’s performance, with greasy sideburns and incipient potbelly, as yet another bad guy in yet another crappy Western. Arriving on set hungover and flubbing his lines, he has a massive meltdown alone in his trailer—a very funny and slightly sad scene in which he berates himself for the eight whisky sours imbibed the night before. Eventually he emerges and, fortified by a pep talk from his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), he aces the big scene. “Yes! Yes! Evil sexy Hamlet! Evil sexy Hamlet!” screeches the film’s director, Sam Wanamaker—hilariously played by Nicholas Hammond, himself a relic of 1960s Hollywood (he was one of the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music).

Why so much film time devoted to this relatively minor incident in Rick’s life? It is, I think, Tarantino’s way of expressing love for his medium; a demonstration of just how much artistry, dedication, talent, and hard work go into making even a piece of pure schlock. Once Upon a Time belongs to a specific genre—movies about the moviemaking process—and, like Singin’ in the Rain before it, manages to be simultaneously mocking and loving. Even respectful.

In the meantime, Cliff, who gives a lift to a scary little piece of jailbait (Margaret Qualley), is brought by her into the orbit of the Manson gang, camped out at the Spahn ranch. (Members of the gang include Lena Dunham as a creepy earth mother and Dakota Fanning as a creepier Squeaky Fromme, while Bruce Dern is the senile George Spahn.) We know who, and how dangerous, they are; Cliff merely senses it. It is a fairy tale (“Once Upon a Time”), and Cliff, absurdly handsome, decent, and tough, is the Hollywood version of a fairy-tale hero; accordingly, he pulls a Clint Eastwood and puts the gang members in their place, at least for the moment.

So: the banal lives of Rick and Cliff are now on a collision course with the sinister Manson “Family.” Rick and Cliff go to Rome, as we knew they would, to do the dreaded spaghetti Westerns; on their return, Rick has gained 15 pounds, a dreadful new haircut, and a zaftig Italian starlet for a bride. He announces to Cliff, tearfully, that he’s going to have to downsize; he won’t be able to employ him any more. They go out for a massive last booze-up together, then return to Rick’s place, where the bride is sleeping upstairs. There’s a noise in the driveway.

The ensuing scene, in which Rick, clad in a shortie bathrobe and wielding a pitcher of margaritas, confronts the killers outside his house, is perhaps the funniest in the movie as well as the most nerve-racking. He’s outraged at their presence, at their very being. “A bunch of goddam fuckin’ hippies!” Thinking they have left, he returns to float in his pool while Cliff, high on acid as well as being drunk, feeds his pit bull. When the hippies finally strike, it is at Rick’s house rather than the Polanskis’. The climax is grotesquely gory and brutal, yes; but there is thematic as well as moral justice involved here. Cliff, the pit bull, even the Italian starlet—even Rick, the perennial nervous Nelly—act like heroes. Cliff gets hauled off to the hospital, the bride and the pit bull go to sleep; and then the gate next door, where Sharon and her friends have heard the commotion, opens. Rick, now a focus of admiration, is finally invited into the magic kingdom. A Hollywood ending. A fairy tale ending, which Tarantino underlines by putting the film’s title onscreen.

The killers changed their target from Sharon and her friends to Rick because they had recognized him, even in his silly bathrobe. “We all grew up watching TV,” says the most cretinous member of the group. It’s TV, she says, that taught them to kill. “We kill the people who taught us to kill.” Hence their choice of the innocuous Rick as their target. This is a direct hit at critics who moralize about the links between screen and real-life violence and some of the asinine comments they make. I will let that be a warning to me.

Bong Joon-ho’s use of violence in Parasite is absolutely central to the message of the film. This is, in essence, that the world is always imposing violence. The flip side of beauty and peace and plenty is violence, hunger, and ugliness; each state creates the other. Everyone is implicated. For each person who lives on the surface of the earth, soaking up its light and warmth, someone else is leading a hidden, underground, deprived life.

For about its first forty-five minutes, the film unfolds as a benign comedy. We become acquainted with a nuclear family of four in South Korea: Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho); his feisty, jovial wife, Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin); their earnest son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), and their clever, practical daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). They live in a cramped, low-ceilinged basement apartment. None of them can find a proper job. They have work, of sorts, assembling pizza boxes, and this they do together in their cramped digs; in a humiliating scene, they are bawled out by their immediate superior, a girl who looks about fourteen years old. It all might be depressing, but it oddly isn’t; the Kims’ family solidarity is strong; they laugh, they persist.

Ki-woo manages to get a job (using a false diploma forged by his sister) as English tutor to a rich girl, Park Da-hye. The Parks live in an extraordinary modern house: beautiful, peaceful, with clean, elegant lines and exquisite grass and shrubs. The green and the grey, the calm expanses provide a mesmerizing background. The Park family is kind, attractive, generous to the young man. Da-hye has a crush on him. Her mother, Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), a guileless young woman who is sweet almost to the point of simple-mindedness, confesses her worries about her little boy, who is about five years of age. He is so talented at art! Surely he will be a great artist! If only he had a good teacher! Ki-woo hurries home and urges Ki-jung to secure the job. And soon the whole family is employed by the Parks: Ki-taek as chauffeur to the man of the house, Dong-ik, and Chung-sook as housekeeper. They pretend not to know each other. They have played mean tricks on the original holders of these jobs to get rid of them and take their places.

All goes well for a while. Ki-woo flirts with Da-hye; Dong-ik confides in Ki-taek during their long trips through traffic; Ki-jung provides the little boy with some much-needed discipline; Chung-sook proves the perfect housekeeper. Everyone is happy! Until one dreadful night . . . the Parks have departed on a camping trip. The Kims pull out the booze and food and settle in for a sybaritic evening. They are surprised by the appearance of the former housekeeper (Lee Jung Eun), acting in a very odd manner. Finally all is revealed; her husband has been living in a secret basement under the house, where she brings him food when she is able.

In more comfortable circumstances this couple and the Kims might have helped each other. In this Manichean world, so starkly divided between those living in the heavenly, architect-designed house and those living, in one way or another, underground, it is each family for itself. The violence escalates; the situation becomes terrifying. And then the Parks return unexpectedly.

The metaphor is played out through the rest of the film: there is the upstairs, the beautiful house, and there is the hidden basement. Nothing in the positions these people have been given in life has anything to do with their characters or talents; it is all arbitrary. Chung-sook is strong, a powerful character, Ki-jung quick and resourceful. Yeon-kyo is helpless: nice, like all the Parks, but oblivious. Is it a learned helplessness, coming with wealth and lack of responsibility? We don’t dislike the Parks, but we wonder at their willful refusal to contemplate reality. And of course at our own. The Kims are a pleasant, good-spirited, humorous family. So, probably, were the housekeeper and her husband, once. Necessity makes them monsters, as satiety has made the Parks vulnerable victims. Which of them is the parasite? All, of course. A book I read recently made the point that “Auschwitz is everywhere.” Not in the camp itself, which has become a mere museum, but in the human soul and the human condition. This is also, I think, a point being made by Bong and by Han Jin Won, who has co-author credit on the script. Whatever we have, someone else goes without. Violence is only the logical extension of this state of being.

Martin Scorsese, like Tarantino, has made violence the staple of his films: an offhand, almost cheerful violence, identifiably Scorsesean. When we see an anonymous victim’s brains get blown out within the first couple of minutes of The Irishman, it’s almost as if the auteur is breezily scrawling his signature across the screen, branding the material as his, much as we recognize a Hopper or a Hockney the minute we lay eyes on it because of its characteristic subject matter and the bold style with which it is depicted.

So characteristic, in fact, that Scorsese, with the collaboration of screenwriter Steven Zaillian, has turned an ostensibly true story—Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which details the confessions of mobster hitman Frank Sheeran (played in the film by Robert De Niro) about his involvement with the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino)—into what would appear to be straight Scorsesean fantasy. Scorsese has put his own signature, in fact, on a real story whose unruly details don’t always fit into the meaningful narrative flow created by Zaillian and Scorsese. First of all, there’s the story itself: Sheeran’s account is unverified, perhaps unverifiable, and many have suspected that his tale was invented for the sake of a lucrative book deal. (He himself has in fact given several versions of the events.) But as Jack Goldsmith has pointed out in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, the force of Scorsese’s cultural prestige is likely now to make Sheeran’s version the definitive one whether it is the correct one or not.

And Scorsese, perhaps inevitably after a lifetime of unbounded success, has become a little arrogant, making The Irishman less than the tight, vivid piece of work it might have been. First of all, there’s the length. To make a film of three-and-a-half hours is an act of hubris. Of course it was made directly for Netflix, so that the producers have less than the usual sparring with theater owners and distributors, who favor shorter films so that more showings can be scheduled per day. But to make a film that long is to throw a gauntlet at the public: to assert that the story you have to tell is worth that much of their time, their attention. And there’s really no reason this movie couldn’t have been cut down by an hour. Sometimes the producers have a point, and the “director’s cut” is merely self-indulgent.

Then there’s the casting. De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci are three of our greatest actors, no doubt about it. But they are now, respectively, 76, 79, and 76 years of age. Much has been made of the “de-aging” technology Scorsese employed so that these actors could play younger versions of themselves—and they play younger versions of themselves through nearly all of the movie. But it doesn’t work. You can make actors look older, but you just can’t make them look younger—the silhouette, the decreased mobility, a stiffening impassivity of the features give it all immediately away. The result is a little creepy: three old men (four if you count the 80-year-old Harvey Keitel in a smaller role) with young wives and young children, going through the motions of young men’s lives. With all the fine younger actors out there, what’s all this in aid of?

They are good, of course, as always, especially Pesci, who delivers the only really emotionally affecting performance in the film. He plays the Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino, one of those paradoxical characters who have become familiar to us through a couple of generations of mob films, including Scorsese’s own: the kindly, ethical family man who somehow has it in him to order a cold-blooded hit. It’s almost a cliché by now, but Pesci delivers it so lovingly that we grasp onto it for emotional support in a chaos of amorality. The other outstanding performance is Pacino’s, ill-cast though he is as the bluff, German-Irish, and of course much younger Hoffa. Pacino, capable of enormous subtlety, here for the most part foregoes that famous delicacy of touch and unleashes a pit-bull ferocity that is in its way more terrifying than the ritualistic threats of the mobsters whose way he fatally gets into. His ill-fated struggle with the mob bosses who have helped him to power amounts, on his part, essentially to the purely assertive drive of the alpha male; unleashed, it can only be fatal. Bufalino, while regretting the move—he’s old friends with Hoffa, after all—quietly, and after careful consideration, orders the hit, leaving the thug Sheeran to carry it out.

It’s all intensely masculine, this violence. While in Tarantino’s and Bong’s worlds women take their part in the mayhem, in Scorsese’s largely Italian underworld they are observers, or more correctly people who do their level best not to observe. Having chosen their mates, and profiting from the swag the crime provides, the ladies simply shut their eyes. Sheeran’s three daughters, however, are a different story, and the use the filmmakers make of them provides much of the film’s emotional heft—especially Peggy, the youngest (played in childhood by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin). Little Peggy fears her father—not what he might do to her, but whom he might hurt to protect her. There is a harrowing scene in which he beats up a shopkeeper who has been rough with her, laying him out in the gutter and grinding his hand underfoot, with Peggy looking on. From this point on she understands her father’s world and fears him and Bufalino, who genuinely loves her, turning instead to the equally creepy Hoffa, whom she naively reveres as the champion of the common man.

De Niro has a tough job humanizing the crude Sheeran, and he doesn’t quite pull it off. His lonely old age might have been predicted: his wife dies of lung cancer (she, and Mrs. Bufalino, never have cigarettes out of their mouths), and estranged from his daughters he passes a miserable few final years in a nursing home, visited only by the priest and various harassed nurses. His attempts to reconcile himself with his God through the rites of the Catholic Church, and his pitiful attempts to make contact with Peggy, always rebuffed, are what one would expect. He’s not all bad. His love for his daughters, however poorly expressed, has always been evident; his devoted, filial relationships with Bufalino and, until the axe falls, with Hoffa, are real. But it’s hard to feel too much empathy for this essentially thuggish character. If Scorsese meant to paint for us a world of unredeemed brutality, he has succeeded.