Mary’s Favorite (and Not So Favorite) Violent Movies

by April 5, 2010 at 11:45 am 2,160 1 Comment

Borderstan Movie Fan movie reviews Mary Burganby Mary Burgan

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. She is a retired professor of English and association executive. Mary’s previous reviews are listed at the end of this post.

I finally ordered Taxi Driver (1976) from Netflix because it was a famous film that I had never seen. Of course, I knew that it was one of Martin Scorsese’s most notable productions and that it helped to make the careers of Robert De Niro, Jody Foster and Sybil Shepherd. I’d put off seeing the film because I can’t stand violence in movies.

I am not talking about phony violence like the made up fights in a recent film such as Sherlock Holmes where there are gory discoveries, explosions, and fights in which every punch is accented by a sonic boom. I am talking about the kind of thing that shocked me watching The Godfather–garroting a character in the passenger seat of an automobile so that he kicks a hole in the windshield–though I admired the overall brilliance of the film.

However, I did not find much to admire in the torturing of a captive policeman very slowly in Reservoir Dogs (1994), or showing a casino owner pounding the hand of a card shark with a hammer in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995). This full frontal depiction of shocking violence both sickens and, I have to admit, fascinates me. It’s the latter sensation that is most troubling, even though Quentin Tarantino has recently suggested that my kind of reaction is really part of the entertainment thrill he wants to deliver–the “eeuww” factor.

A number of years ago I rented a video of the highly praised Reservoir Dogs to watch with my teenaged son. While we were watching it, he suddenly said, “Mom, let’s turn this off. This is sick.”  And I replied, “I thought you, a connoisseur of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974], wouldn’t mind the violence here.”

He told me that the chainsaw movie was different because the schlock was so over the top and the picture so amateurish that you could not take it seriously. The torture of the captured policeman was different–sadistic and mean. (I only believed about half of what he said, but no matter.)

Well, I actually didn’t think that Taxi Driver was violent in that sadistic and mean way–partly because the performance of De Niro, portraying the awkward stupidity of the unhinged mind so convincingly, makes the movie a distancing study of psychopathology. In addition, the prevailing atmosphere of general seaminess of 1970’s New York shares in the film’s revelation of Travis Bickel’s character.

So while Taxi Driver is not one of my 10 best films, I agree that it is a memorable one, though I’ll take Raging Bull over it any time.

Two other violent films that have been released are Ajami (2009) from Israel and A Prophet (2010) from France. Both have received award nominations, and A Prophet was highly celebrated in Cannes last year. I think that both of them deserve a look

Ajami depicts the intertribal violence within an Arab community in Jaffa, outside of Tel Aviv. The film is not simply a study of Israeli-Arab conflict within a country in which Arabs are always finding ways to cross a guarded border to get to work. It is also a study of the strains of animosity in a crowded society that is layered with varieties of culture and misunderstandings: Palestinian, Bedouin, Jewish, Christian, Muslim.

These may be submerged in everyday life, but they emerge in violent reaction when there is a crisis like the revenge killing of one member of a group, or even a cross-cultural love affair.

A Prophet takes up a similar theme of ethnic conflict, though because of its setting in a French penitentiary, the violence is triggered as a matter of gang policy rather than the chance event in a crowded community. The main character is a young French Muslim thief who is forced by the head of a Christian Corsican prison gang to murder another Muslim in order to survive.

The protagonist commits the murder in a moment of desperation and in a messy fashion. Blood does spurt in this scene, but the effect is as shocking to the murderer as to the audience, and it haunts him throughout the film. Meanwhile, the crosscurrents of prison loyalties and betrayals build into such a reversal of fortune, that there is a certain catharsis by the last shot of the film in a prison yard.

I am not always against violence in the movies, only the kind that, to use a phrase from D.H. Lawrence, “does dirt on life.” I cannot stand the ornate, gothic, gory extravaganza that emanates from a belief that showing blood being extravagantly shed illustrates the emptiness of existence.

I’ve just finished reading a biography of Flannery O’Connor, a writer who couldn’t resist the urge to punish her complacent characters with brutal violence. Her defenders have opined that this urge was at once comic and deeply theological. I will admit that this tactic is brilliant in its depiction of a fallen world, but I also think it is sick.

Other Reviews by The Borderstan Movie Fan


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