We Know How the Story Ends Part 2: The Clichéd Violence of Quentin Tarrantino

Here now is part 2 of "We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film," dealing with some of the weaknesses I see in Quentin Tarantino's moral universe, contrasted with the work of Flannery O'Connor along with what are supposedly cliched romantic comedies.

Part 1 on Romantic Comedies can be found here and part 3 (on 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Christian narrative) is here.

Here is a link to the podcast referenced in part 1:

Can We Still Be Friends Episode 8: Quentin Tarantino


We Know How the Story Ends—Part 2: The Clichéd Violence of Quentin Tarrantino

On the opposite end of the story-telling spectrum, both in style, content and ideology, is the work of Quentin Tarantino, who continues to depict a brutal universe of violence in film after film.  Taking his martial arts/spaghetti western/exploitation mock epic film Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 as an example, we find a world bound to endless cycles of revenge and struggles for power.  The film is a revenge story to its core, as it follows The Bride (played by Uma Thurman), a woman whose fiancé and unborn child were mercilessly murdered by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, a group of professional assassins she was once a member of but whose lifestyle she rejected upon discovering she was pregnant.  After spending four years in a coma, The Bride—whose real name is Beatrix Kiddo—spends the rest of the two films killing her attempted murders along with, of course, their leader Bill. She also discovers her daughter is still alive and being cared for by Bill, who is not only her former boss but also her former lover.

The character transformations that take place in 13 Going on 30 are not seen in the revenge films of Quentin Tarantino (this does not include Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown).  He paints a self-destructive world that is simultaneously sadistic and masochistic. Along with Kill Bill, this would include Reservoir Dogs, GrindhouseInglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.*  Whereas 13 Going on 30 acknowledges death in the life of its characters, Kill Bill fails to acknowledge life.  While it may seem at the end of Kill Bill—when The Bride reclaims her daughter and goes on to live a “normal” life with her in safety—it may seem that Tarantino is telling us the reason his character has endured so much hardship is that she now will be allowed to live in peace, the story itself betrays the fact that any solitude The Bride finds will only be temporary.  The Bride is not an innocent figure, and like all the other characters in the film, she has lived a life of violence and will most likely meet a violent end herself.  

Her possible fate is foreshadowed in Kill Bill in an interesting sequence of familial killings, where one character, O-Ren Ishii, witnesses the killing of her parents.  She grows up to become a killer, and eventually attempts to kill The Bride and The Bride’s unborn daughter.  Out of revenge, The Bride murders all but one of her attempted assassins. One of her assassins is Vernita Green, herself the mother of a girl the same age as The Bride’s daughter.  After she murders Green, The Bride tells her assassin’s daughter, who saw her own mother die right in front of her, that one day when she grows up she might wish to avenge her mother’s death, and if she does, she, The Bride, will be waiting for her.  Here Tarantino has created a world with an endless cycle of death, each assassin trumping her predecessor.  Surely, if that little girl ends up killing The Bride it will only be the beginning of another murderous cycle wherein The Bride’s daughter murders Vernita’s daughter, and someone else then seeks to murder The Bride’s daughter, and so on until the whole world has been slaughtered by an unquenchable bloodlust.  The characters never stop to consider their actions, but only mindlessly—albeit deftly—carry out their killings.  Despite the justice enacted in vengeance it seems they never even ponder the fact there might be a better way.  

According to Jill Pelàez Baumgaertner this is a great flaw in Tarantino’s films, for, when staring mortality in the face his characters lack the “moment of revelation” that such an experience should evoke in them.1 In killing after killing they stay the same, no matter if they are losing their own lives or are taking the life of another.  There are two moments towards the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2 where The Bride decides to walk away from the assassin lifestyle: first, upon finding out she is pregnant and then again after eradicating her would-be assassins.  These are moments of possible change for The Bride, but the fact that she took up her sword again after waking from her coma signals that she had not truly disowned her assassin persona, but killed whenever she deemed it necessary.  Bill told The Bride that killing was in her blood, and all signals in the film point to the fact that a quiet life as a soccer mom would be a prison sentence for her.

Although similar in their macabre tone, Tarantino’s stories differ vastly from those of Flannery O’Connor, another storyteller who continually dwells upon death.  The difference, as Baumgaertner points out is that O’Connor forces her characters, who often face the most traumatic of circumstances, to have a true “moment of revelation” before their life ends.2 This is especially demonstrated in the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, where an escaped convict murders a family stranded on the side of a country road.  The grandmother of this family, in attempting to dissuade the convict from killing her entire family, actually learns to care for a human being other herself right before she dies. The grandmother, who before was manipulative and self-seeking to her core, learned to see the convict as someone who needed love.  With chilling clarity, the convict, after shooting her three times, sums up this woman’s life, by claiming “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”3

Doing what Tarantino fails to do, O’Connor causes us, when contemplating death, to in turn contemplate the precious gift that life is.  She does so without resorting to didacticism, but relies solely on the narrative itself, which by its innate power should cause us to stop, think, and then act.  Perhaps this is why O’Connor kills that family.  Their death is seemingly so morbid, so wasteful, but unlike with Tarantino her story causes us to look at these people’s lives and then to look at the state of our own lives in turn.  Are we too only capable of truly living when our lives are being held at gun point?

Tarantino, with his masterful visual aesthetics and his genre bending, even genre transcending style, has simply propagated the grindhouse schlock he grew up with, and so has unknowingly become Nietzsche’s child.  In Tarantino’s world there is only death and there is only violence.  There is only domination and unrelenting rage.  Love is the anomaly and peace the oddity, the interim between one violent act and another.  It is almost as if mercy and forgiveness were never options for his characters, never considered as possible solutions to the wrongs done to them not because they are inherently cruel people but because in their world such benevolence does not even exist.

Karsten Harries has defined “religious kitsch” as something that “seeks to elicit religious emotion without an [authentic] encounter with God”.4 Thus, in the same way we could define romantic kitsch as that which seeks to elicit romantic feelings without teaching us what love actually is and violent kitsch as that which seeks to elicit a fear of death or, what is worse, a pleasure in death, without actually teaching us either the value of life or what death is essentially about.  

By teaching its protagonist how to sacrifice herself for another, romantic kitsch is not something 13 Going on 30 falls prey to but violent kitsch is something Quentin Tarantino seems to actually relish in with Kill Bill.  Therefore, despite its aesthetic worth, Kill Bill is far more clichéd than most hopelessly romantic movies, even the blatantly kitschy ones.  A more general definition of kitsch is “art without seriousness, art that takes pretty, fashionable, and cute forms,” its primary deficiency being not that it has “too much imagination but too little.” While kitschy storytelling is obviously an aesthetic failure, on another level it is equally “a moral and spiritual failure”, for it fails to link its narrative to ethical action.  As it is with “cute” kitsch, so it is also with dark and dismal kitsch; the kind aggrandized in Tarantino’s films.  His work also lacks imagination, because to contrive a plot without any hope in the future, where there is only hate and annihilation, is too easy narratively speaking, for it takes no imagination to despair.  The moral of a film like Kill Bill—not that Tarantino would want one—would be something along the lines of “kill when necessary and survive the longest.”  The story is one where tough decisions do not have to be made, the taking of people’s lives is never contemplated, and the characters—despite their witty dialogue—are monolithic serial killers.  Thus its kitschiness is not only that it plays off of formulaic visual and plot devices, but that it allows us to live in a world where moral consequence is irrelevant.

Just as Meg Ryan has been cathartic to women’s jaded love lives, Tarantino is now soothing a whole generation of men who just want to cut people’s throats and blow stuff up but would never actually take to such actions in real life.  With Kill Bill Tarantino truly missed his opportunity to transcend the genre he was paying homage to, and as a result he failed to escape becoming the director of another clichéd exploitation film.  There could have been no greater plot twist than The Bride, in an act of mercy, allowing Bill to live after realizing his death would solve nothing in the long run, but only further the path of violence Bill first introduced in her life.  This would have been the ultimate irony, naming a revenge movie Kill Bill wherein Bill is allowed to live in an act of mercy and forgiveness.  Here, Tarantino could have shown movie audiences that while the world is filled with hate and hostility, not everything has to end in a blood bath.  But instead, Tarantino, by having The Bride kill Bill, embraced the mindset of a culture who has accepted the telos of death as a destination to nothingness, and in so doing he made a movie that depended on tired worn out clichés, albeit of a nature completely different to those found in romantic comedies.  

As much as our culture wants everything to come out perfectly—as evidenced by our fascination with the romance genre—more and more we want everything to come out all wrong—as evidenced by Tarantino’s films along with a never-ending plethora of gore films such as the Hostel and Saw franchises.  These are ontologically tragic tales and through them we are telling ourselves that, despite our efforts, life is devoid of meaning, we are bound by the immanence of this physical world, and death is final.  Truthfully, such stories are not more “real” or true to life than sentimental stories that make happiness seem so easily obtained, but are actually just as clichéd and just as lazily structured.  These stories are merely sentimentally attached to despair (instead of to romance).  

This is the landscape of our culture, but do we really have to choose between hopelessly optimistic stories and stories devoid of hope?  One of the most powerful and formative ways a culture comes to terms with life and death is through the stories they tell.  A culture’s stories are its resumés to the rest of the world.  Stories help us live.  If a culture tells good stories and tells them well, that culture will in turn live well.  While it is dangerous “to conflate the aesthetic and the moral” in works of art, there is much weight to the claim that “one’s capacity to live a moral life is correlated with one’s capacity to tell and hear significant narratives”. 7
  Kevin Vanhoozer makes the same observation, noting 
there is an important, though often overlooked, tie between a culture’s imagination and its ethics.  The foundation stories of a given culture, its stock of narratives and meta-narratives, create a sense of the stages on which human freedom lives and moves.  Culture cultivates an ethos via the work of the imagination (mythos). 8

Thus, if we are assessing America’s “stock of narratives” it is my claim that we would find a large body of work that propagates either a lazy optimism or an indulgent nihilism.

Read on:
Part 1: Romantic comedies
Part 3: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Death in the Christian narrative


*At the time this essay was first written Grindhouse was Tarantino's most recent film. To my chagrin and amazement the director has still not managed to move past the revenge narrative, thus only fortifying the critiques I lay down here.

1 Baumgaertner, Jill Pelàez. “On violence and the grotesque in Flannery O’Connor.” Mars Hill Audio Journal; Vol. 37, March/April 1999. Charlottesville, Virginia.


3 O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." In Anthology of American Literature, vol. Volume 2, edited by George McMichael, 1784-94. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), 1794. First published 1955.

4 Harries, Karsten. In Brown, Frank Burch. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. (New York: Oxford, 2000), 141.

5 Vanhoozer, Kevin J. "Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts." In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Blackwell Companions to Religion. (Malden, Massachussets: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 115.

6 Ibid.

7 Brown, Frank Burch. Religious Aesthetics. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 195 a href="#top7">

8 Vanhoozer, Kevin J. "Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts." In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Blackwell Companions to Religion. (Malden, Massachussets: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 113-114. _________________________________________________________________

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