Exploring How Quentin Tarantino Uses Violence in His Films

"It's not blood. It's red." —Jean-Luc Godard

Quentin Tarantino is a maestro when it comes to on-screen violence—I mean, every single one of his films features entire sequences dedicated to shootouts, sword fights, or general bloody mayhem (even his segment in Four Rooms builds up to a guy's pinky getting chopped off). But is there more to all of the carnage and bloodshed than mere spectacle and thrills? This video essay by Julian Palmer of The Discarded Image examines Tarantino's use of violence in his work to find out. 

So, just how violent are Tarantino's movies? A quick Google search will tell you just how many characters Tarantino has killed since Django Unchained, and even though the death toll reaches over 560, it doesn't even make it on the top 10 list for most on-screen deaths in a movie. That honor belongs to Guardians of the Galaxy with 83,871 deaths. (That is not a typo.)

Credit: Slash Film

But wait a second—how is it that a movie that kills off over 83,000 characters can walk away with a PG-13 rating while one like Jackie Brown, which has only 4, walks away with an R? Okay, okay—there are other categories that influence a rating, like language, sexual content, substance abuse, and nudity, all of which are widely used in Tarantino films, but still—83,000 on-screen deaths. 

I think this is one of the main points the video tries to explain, how one death can be considered brutal and cruel, while another can be comical and almost unimportant. Perhaps it's not about how many characters you kill off in a film, but how you do it. I mean, is violence really seen as violence when it's Indiana Jones shooting the Cairo Swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Not really, in fact most people laugh at that scene. But when it's Ordell shooting Louis at point blank range in the front seat of a car, it's startling mostly due to the facts that the scene and the setting are so intimate, and Ordell is a ruthless m-fer.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCiEdOUGMto

But even though scenes from Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Django Unchained are full of blood, bullets, and all-out carnage, there seems to be some sort of rhyme and reason for it. Tarantino himself is not a big fan of real-world violence, but he appears to see a huge chasm between actual violence and movie violence—the two are not closely related. At a 1994 press conference, he told Newsday:

Violence is just one of many things you can do in movies. People ask me, 'Where does all this violence come from in your movies?' I say, 'Where does all this dancing come from in Stanley Donen movies?' If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.

What do you think about how Quentin Tarantino uses violence in his films? Do you think there's a limit to how much a filmmaker can include depictions of violence in their work before it becomes "irresponsible"? Let us know in the comments below.     

Your Comment


Not so long ago I compiled a short presentation on screen violence for students on a media course.

I used 3 clips, 3 films, 3 directors, 1 writer. The films were Kill Bill, True Romance and Natural Born Killers.

I described the Directors as; a man who spent his childhood in the Blitz, a man who served in Vietnam and a man who worked as a comic book store clerk.

I asked the students to consider not only how violence was represented by each, but also how each Director's life experience might influence their depiction of violence.

Beyond that I suggested they consider what effect violence in cinema might have on the audience.

In answer to the question of 'irresponsible' violence, I would say that violence crosses a line when it becomes aspirational or even heroic; when it crosses over into lifestyle marketing territory.

It's an old, old argument. Does on screen violence inspire real life violence? My answer is yes, it does. Not necessarily (or not always) as direct action, certainly not as immediate emulation but certainly as acceptance, as a trait to be admired and even necessary for success.

Which doesn't mean I'd campaign against violence in cinema. Violence is a part of life, it has a place in cinema. Although, to my mind, it's a part of life we're better off criticising than celebrating or, worse, fetishising in cinema.

Is there a limit to how much violence a filmmaker can depict? No, not if it's done responsibly.

What do I think about Tarantino's use of violence? 'Inglorious Basterd' ;-)

November 1, 2016 at 2:15PM

John Le Brocq

I think it's hypocrital he says it's "one of the worse things in America" while he's all violent in his films.

February 11, 2018 at 4:41AM

Cessna Lyn Abella
Amateur Filmmaker

"language, sexual content, substance abuse, and nudity, all of which are widely used in Tarantino films"

Not quite. Language: definitely, but only because it reflects real-life conversation.
Substance abuse: Not widely used, but when we do see it, it's deliberately intense.
Nudity: None! Except maybe a microsecond glimpse in 'Django Unchained' but it's not at all in a sexual/erotic context.

Saying these things are 'widely used' in Tarantino films is a very uneducated statement.

July 30, 2018 at 2:37AM, Edited July 30, 2:36AM