Let's start with the obvious. A good deal of movie violence is designed as a way for us to experience it vicariously. Whether the topic is war, high-flying superheroes, cops and robbers, comedy or Freddy Krueger — films are packed with plots whose main purpose is to deliver payback.
That is why "Taken" had such mass appeal. It was easy to empathize with Liam Neeson's desperate father, his anguish when his daughter is kidnapped by ruthless international sex slavers. It was easier still to forgive the brutal swath he cut getting her back. Take that raw revenge and put a superpower at the other end of the barrel and you find a steady stream of good guys with guns we want in our camp — Bourne, Bond, the Terminator, Transformers, G.I. Joe.
For the vast majority of moviegoers, fantasy, fairy tales, the hyper-realized worlds of comic books, even the darkest of parables, offer a safe escape from modern problems — not an excuse to create more. If anything, playing with metaphorical extremes is a platform for the medium's artistic possibilities — exotic character designs, extraordinary special effects, all the arsenals of technology and no earthbound restrictions. It's exhilarating to watch Peter Parker scale buildings, Clark Kent leap them, Batman zoom around them. Even as the buildings crumble and the bodies of their adversaries pile up, the consistent take-away is that there are repercussions for breaking the rules.
What tends to get lost in the rhetoric is how many film classics have risen from the machinations and the muck. The list of the legendary is long, but I can't imagine a film library without Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" or "Apocalypse Now." Or Jonathan Demme's unsettling masterwork of the macabre in "The Silence of the Lambs." The disturbing visual eloquence of Brian De Palma in "Scarface," or "Carlito's Way."
Tarantino — arguably Hollywood's current blood-splatter expert — always strikes me as his own creature when it comes to brutality. There is an excess of the red stuff in virtually every movie he makes, but that very excess is what turns it surreal.
In his Oscar-nominated "Django's" final showdowns (yes, plural), Jamie Foxx's bounty-hunting freeman is about to take retribution on the South's most egregious slaveholder. By this point, a runaway slave has been torn apart by dogs, countless backs have been lashed into bloody ribbons, and there has been a string of other punishments so brutal they almost defy description. The gun battles that ensue seem appropriate in their excess, a relief and a release — an exclamation mark on the director's dissertation on slavery written in bullets and blood.
It is when movies turn realistic that the brutality is the most difficult to watch — and to forget.
Why not encourage filmmakers to make it less gruesome, less graphic? To me, this is the scariest proposition of all.
Consider Jodie Foster's rape victim in "The Accused." Her desecration, her humiliation, is searing. Or the chilling examination of a twisted criminal mind in the farmhouse killings captured by "In Cold Blood." Oliver Stone's brilliant "Platoon" exposed in gruesome detail the many ways war scars soldiers. In "The Godfather's" dissection of mob machinations, there is a treatise on power's corruption as well as organized crime's devastation.
Why should any of that be softened? None of it is pretty. It takes more than a few blows on a face for skin to give way to bones and viscera. When gunshots end a life, bones shatter, blood pools, the dying cry out. I don't want the impact squeegeed away. Revenge, and justice, is too often written in pain. I don't want Hollywood to clean up the mess. I don't want it to silence the screams.