Tokyo, Japan: Uma Thurman slices through throngs of Yakuza, severing heads and literally painting the room red. Jerusalem, about 2,000 years earlier: Jesus Christ shakes in agony as Roman soldiers pound those infamous nine-inch nails into his hands, climaxing a two-hour buildup of violence.
These two bloody scenes come from two of the most talked about, most violent and most commercially successful films in recent memory. But interestingly, one would be hard-pressed to find many people who saw – and liked – both “Kill Bill” and “The Passion of the Christ.” While both are sensationally brutal in their dissection of the human body, both are generally praised by one legion of fans yet reviled by the other.
It’s an interesting paradox. Many assume that those worshipping Quentin Tarantino’s two-volume epic simply lack the religious background – or morals – to appreciate the piety of Mel Gibson’s film. Conversely, those who prefer Uma-with-a-sword could decry Caviezel-on-a-cross as unnecessarily brutal and spiritually hollow. The difference is enticing for film fans, especially since the second book of Uma last weekend dethroned “The Passion” from the top box-office spot it occupied Easter weekend.
It’s also a difference that delightfully defies any resolution. Upon close inspection, the films share enough similarities that either side’s argument cancels itself out. Neither perpetuates needless violence. Both code their motives in an exclusive language incomprehensible to those “on the outside.” Tarantino and Gibson are unlikely bosom buddies. And together “Kill Bill” and “The Passion of the Christ” mark an unprecedented celebration of superviolence in mainstream American cinema.
When people complain that about “Kill Bill,” they usually note that Tarantino’s stylish violence – blood spurts that flourish even more wildly than in his earlier work – does not mask the immoral motives driving it. These detractors are technically correct because the film’s protagonists are all basically bad people, even if they’re bad people murdering for a good reason. To many, that’s morally repellant.
However, these critics can’t see past Tarantino’s artful blood splatters to appreciate the thematic richness hidden beneath the carnage. The film lends itself to a striking feminist interpretation in which women are not only capable of violence but able to fight without being sexualized. Tarantino also comments on the modern family unit – or perhaps the destruction of it. He slams east against west. He fuses genres. He reinterprets the American action hero as a woman – as a mom, no less.
Even if its theme of vengeance is shallow, “Kill Bill” is deep. Its cultural commentary renders the violence meaningful.
Those who knock Gibson’s Godfest, however, are equally shortsighted. Yes, it’s brutal. Yes, it’s masochistic. Yes, it’s painful to watch, but what Gibson has done is nonetheless revolutionary. “The Passion of the Christ” got those who normally avoid sinful movie houses to pour into the theaters in droves. Gibson’s blunt violence lacks Tarantino’s dazzle, for sure. Rather, it hits you like a shovel to the face. But even those whose religious illiteracy made the film incomprehensible must appreciate the genius of making a unique film that appealed to a powerful but ignored demographic.
Beyond that, the violence in “The Passion” is meaningful to many people – maybe in a more literal way than Uma slashing her way through feminist repression, but valid nonetheless. It’s just unfortunate that those who can’t draw meaning from “The Passion” are likely the ones who can see the motives behind Tarantino’s madness.
Since October, America’s movie theaters have been stained with blood – Christ’s, Uma’s, some Japanese guy’s. And while meaning is completely subjective, it should be gratifying for film fans that so many people can agree that cinematic violence can have profound meaning, especially in a time when television and radio are subject to heightened censorship by the Federal Communications Commission.
It’s ironic that such a frequent target of censorship is now openly and gleefully awash with blood. And it’s just funny that two irreconcilable poles of cinema – Tarantino and Gibson – have accidentally agreed on what makes a worthwhile film.