Violence is a tricky tool for a storyteller in any medium. If it is used poorly, it can damage the work’s overall structural integrity, derail a character’s prior narrative arc and repel the audience from continuing with the piece. If it is used skillfully, it can further both character and plot arcs, and draw the audience in with the developments it brings.
Violence, when used well, is a big deal for a narrative. It permanently changes the path the story is on, and colors everything that comes before and after it. When it comes to well-used violence in film, think of the titular monster’s first attack in The Thing, the Basterds’ interrogation of their prisoners in Inglourious Basterds, or the massacre of the Baxters in A Fistful of Dollars.
The dog’s transformation and assault introduces The Thing’s primary antagonist and its modus operandi, which in turn sets up the paranoia that pervades the film and gives it a fair part of its greatness. The Basterds’ interrogation and subsequent execution of the German sergeant both proves the truth of Aldo Raine’s earlier declaration of intent and justifies the Nazi High Command’s fear of their operation. And the Rojo’s gleeful mass murder of the entire Baxter clan both deconstructs the image of the backwater town torn apart by two equally powerful gangs with the entirely one-sided fight and offers a few clues to the Man With No Name’s character as he watches from the coffin where he hides.
All three of those moments make sense in the context of their respective films and add to their narratives in positive ways. They are testaments to both the power of violence as a storytelling tool and the skill of the writers, directors and actors who were able to apply it with the discipline it requires.
What follows is a tribute to five films from this year that were able to do the same. The specific type of violence may vary, but all five films have at least one moment where the content depicted has the impact it actually should. They are not casual, they are not dumbed down to make their consumption easier or less unsettling and they have actual relevance to their overall narratives. As the films discussed here are all from this year, some spoiler warnings apply from here on in.
With that in mind, let’s begin.
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Mad Dog Puts Down the Gun in The Raid: Redemption
The Raid: Redemption is a bit of shaky entry here, since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 before getting its theatrical release this year, but on the grounds that it is a very good film, it will be included anyway.
The piece as a whole is extremely violent, particularly during its last third, where heroic SWAT officer Rama has to face off against increasingly vicious, increasingly competent foes. But none of that violence ever feels gratuitous; Rama and his squad mates are trapped, without any weapons or back-up in an entire building that is hostile to them.
Tama, the crime lord they need to capture, is both vicious and charismatic enough to set every single goon in the building who can fight against the few survivors of the initial massacre. With no way out beyond capturing Tama and using him to ensure safe passage, Rama and company need to fight all out if they are to have any hope of survival.
Beyond that, The Raid: Redemption also serves as a showcase for the Indonesian martial art Silat. The fights featuring it do get very brutal, but there is a real grace to the way Rama and his fellow practitioners spin and bend. Director Gareth Evans makes a point of highlighting it via methods as varied as tracking shots of Rama as he fights his way through a corridor full of Tama’s men and the scene that earned The Raid: Redemption its place on this list.
When Tama’s chief enforcer Mad Dog captures Jaka, Rama’s superior officer, he has the chance to simply execute him and be done with it. Instead, Mad Dog goads Jaka into a vacant apartment at gunpoint. But rather than shoot Jaka, Mad Dog sets his gun down and explains that “pulling the trigger is like ordering takeout.” The real satisfaction in killing someone for him is found in a duel to the death with only the human body for a weapon. That explained, he and Jaka face off.
The ensuing fight is an exercise in contrasts. Jaka uses Judo, and Mad Dog Silat. Jaka is precise, and Mad Dog is as wild as his name suggests. Jaka fights for his life, and Mad Dog for fun. Rama, though absent, is also contrasted. His Silat is graceful, and based around responding to his enemy’s own movements. Mad Dog’s Silat is above all else offensive, and aimed at dominating the fight from the first punch thrown to the killing blow. He kills Jaka after wearing him down, and despite taking a few hard hits, only loses control of the fight briefly.
Beyond establishing that Mad Dog is a legitimate threat, the fight serves to develop his character. From his twisted reasoning for why fighting to the death is fun to the relentless way he moves, the audience learns a good deal about who Mad Dog is from his act of violence. It is an excellent example of a kind of physical acting that is not often seen these days, and the violence of it is instrumental to it working as well as it does. Mad Dog is a violent man in a violent world. How better to learn about him than to see him participate in it?
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Liz Shaw Removes the Foreign Object in Prometheus
Of all the pictures on this list, Prometheus is probably the most divisive. We Got This Covered has hosted both sides of the argument over its quality but this particular article will focus on one scene that is generally regarded as a solid piece of work.
When Dr. Elizabeth Shaw discovers that she is “pregnant” with something that “is not a conventional fetus,” she fights off the sedatives given to her by morally ambiguous android David and staggers her way to the med-pod. After figuring out a way to get the male-configured pod to work with her, Liz struggles to extract the increasingly active monster before it tears her apart from the inside out.
The ensuing scene is a serious contender for the most disturbing moment in the entire Alien series. From the twisted pregnancy imagery to the claustrophobic med-pod to the proto-chestburster writhing about in the claw’s grasp after Shaw is able to remove it, everything about the sequence is the stuff of nightmares. And it is incredibly effective.
Its violence recalls the original Alien’s own chestburster while taking it in a dramatically different direction. Rather than become an unsuspecting victim of the chestburster, Shaw is aware of its existence and actively fights against it at every turn. The violence, while very similar to Alien’s is played differently.
Rather than a sudden, surprise violation, Prometheus draws out the violence, and makes it a personal battle for Shaw, rather than using her as a catalyst for the rest of the crew’s fight. In so doing it gives Shaw a chance to shine as a worthy predecessor/successor to Ellen Ripley and further muddies the waters regarding the actions and intentions of the Engineers. Whatever the reputation Prometheus acquires in the coming years, this scene at least displays a masterful understanding of the power violence can have when it is used well.
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Bane Breaks The Bat In The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan has earned a good deal of acclaim over the course of his career, a fair portion of which is for his work on The Dark Knight Trilogy. Not only did Nolan successfully bring Batman back to the screen after the critical failure of Batman and Robin, but he redefined the way the public perceived the character.
With Batman Begins, both Batman and Bruce Wayne received well-defined, well-thought-through characters. With The Dark Knight, Nolan captured the zeitgeist with an exploration of the ethics of surveillance and the late Heath Ledger’s monstrous Joker. With The Dark Knight Rises, he sought to bring Bruce Wayne’s story to a close and continue his exploration of Batman’s power as a symbol. At the same time, he introduced audiences to Tom Hardy’s take on Bane, a villain whose most famous story arc saw him become one of the few people to outright beat Batman.
His prior appearance on film had been in Batman and Robin, where he served as a glorified goon in Poison Ivy’s surface. Rather than the brilliant, ruthless and clever villain of the comics, Batman and Robin’s Bane was a near-voiceless thug whose smartest moment came when he snuck into Gotham City by putting on a trench coat and a fedora over his full costume. Not only would Hardy’s Bane have to live up to the legacy of his comic counterpart, he would have to establish a foothold in the public’s consciousness despite a less than stellar prior attempt.
He succeeded, in large part thanks to his quick, methodical and complete thrashing of Batman. As with The Raid: Redemption, The Dark Knight Rises conveys a lot of character in the fight. Bruce is eight years out of practice, overconfident and in Bane’s own words, fights “like a young man.” Bane, on the other hand, is a man with a mission. Every punch is carefully chosen, quickly delivered and utterly devastating. Bane never moves more than he has to, and instead prefers to counter Bruce’s increasingly desperate attacks with prime blows and jarring taunts.
It is not a grand, climactic duel, nor is it a brawl. Bane is a master planner who knows both his own strength and his foe’s. Nolan showcases this with a well-timed close up of Bane effortlessly catching Batman’s strongest punch, and allows the physicality of the scene to shine through by leaving the scene soundtrack free. The only sounds come from Bane, Batman and the nearby sewer drain.
In other words, the scene’s power comes entirely from itself – Batman’s doomed struggle, Bane’s assured brutality and the utter isolation of the sewer base. It climaxes with Nolan, Hardy and Bale recreating the moment of Bane breaking Batman’s back over his knee. It is shocking, disquieting, and the fallout from it informs both Bruce and Bane’s character arcs throughout the rest of the picture, exactly as it should.
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The Khaki Scouts Cross The Line In Moonrise Kingdom
Yes, a Wes Anderson dramedy made this list. When Sam and Suzy, Moonrise Kingdom’s lovestruck pair of young adults on the run, are cornered by Sam’s compatriots in the Khaki Scouts, things degenerate quickly. Insults are hurled, threats are made and ultimately Sam has to lay down an ultimatum. He draws a line in the dirt, and orders the Khaki Scouts not to cross it. Naturally, they do. One colorful jump cut later, one of the Scouts needs a stretcher, the troop’s motorcycle is stuck in a tree and the troop dog has been slain by a stray arrow.
Moonrise Kingdom’s place alongside The Raid: Redemption and Prometheus may seem a bit unusual at first glance, but in its own way, it is an excellent example of violence used properly in storytelling. Keeping the violence offscreen save for the cast’s perplexed reaction to the aftermath keeps it from breaking the film’s previously established tone of melancholy whimsy.
As with The Dark Knight Rises, the violence serves to highlight the character’s individual cores; Sam and Suzy are in love to the point of fighting for each other, with Sam issuing his ultimatum and Suzy apparently stabbing one of the scouts during the unseen melee. The Khaki scouts are a band of kids who dislike Sam on general, to the point of bringing a wide variety of not-strictly-necessary weapons with them on their search for him. Both parties are convinced that they are doing what is right for them, and as a result, clash.
As Moonrise Kingdom is generally fairly sweet natured, young love triumphs over young hate, and Sam and Suzy drive off the Khaki Scouts before proceeding on to the cove where there romance continues. Is it unusual compared to its peers here? Certainly. But as out-of-place as two tweens in love might seem alongside the Engineers, an Indonesian SWAT Team, Batman and a troubled, psychic teenager, their not-terribly-final stand fits in with the rest of their work and has a definite impact on the rest of the film; the Khaki Scouts are inspired to reconsider their attitude toward in Sam in part by their realizations about just how horrible they have been to him, and the adults step up their search for the wayward couple in the immediate aftermath of the fight.
Moving beyond Moonrise Kingdom, consider the pirate subplot in The Life Aquatic or on a darker note, Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums. Odd as it might seem, Wes Anderson knows how to handle violence; with tact, care and an awareness for where it belongs in the story.
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Andrew Crushes The Car In Chronicle
Most of Chronicle’s trailers closed with a young man sitting in a junkyard. With a look of cold confidence, he closes his hand and crushes a wrecked car lying behind him. The young man in question is Andrew, a lonely kid from a broken home who obtained vast psychic powers alongside two friends, Steve and Matt, from a mysterious object in an equally mysterious hole in the ground.
For a time, the three are content to amuse themselves with the many pranks psychic powers allow, but after Andrew nearly kills a rude driver, Matt sets out stricter rules for how they use their powers. Despite some moments of happiness, the stress of his home life and a meteoric rise and fall in his peers’ esteem for him push Andrew further and further into insanity and misanthropy. The car-crushing occurs as Andrew shifts into a brutal, survival-of-the-fittest mindset that eventually leads to a murderous rampage through Seattle.
Chronicle’s act of violence is somewhat unusual compared to its peers on the list; no-one is hurt. Andrew crushes a car while ruminating on the power his abilities gives him. But it is still a shocking, effective moment. It is one of the first times Andrew has used his powers for exclusively destructive reasons, and not only is he casual about it, he is deliberate. Whoever eventually sees the recordings Andrew and Matt make throughout the film is meant to take the car-crushing as a statement of intent.
Like Bane beating down Batman, Andrew aims to intimidate, and he does so through power. But where Bane is a man with an exact mission that he has given himself to completely, Andrew is an angry young man who starts out with a plan but is eventually reduced to an incoherent, furious wreck. As powerful as he looks crushing the car, it serves no purpose to anyone beyond demonstrating his strength and making him look cool.
With a single moment, writer Max Landis, director John Trank and actor Dane DeHann set up Andrew’s character arc for the remainder of the film in an attention-getting, internally consistent way. It is an excellent bit of writing in a generally excellent film, and as with all the films on the list, it is worth seeing at least once.
These are just five of the many films that have come out this year. Which others used violence well? Which had certain moments that were unforgettable, in part because of the way they made use of violence? Which completely messed up in their use of violence? Which films were great in part because they did not use violence? There is a discussion to be had here, and it is a worthwhile one.
Head down to the comments below and let us know your thoughts.Previous