Reader Peter Hoagland wrote that he went to see “Jack Reacher,” which stars Tom Cruise as an Iraq war veteran cut from the same vigilante cloth as Dirty Harry and his successors. Although the reader enjoyed parts of it, he was disturbed — as I was — by the film’s first-person-shooter aesthetic, which puts the audience behind the gun sights of a sniper as he aims at a little girl in a public square.
“Coming on the heels of Newtown as well as the firemen getting ambushed/murdered in Webster NY, frankly I have had it,” Mr. Hoagland wrote, adding that he was “not sure where this national discussion on gun violence is going to wind up, but I for one am no longer willing to support it in films.”
Minutes later, reader Jeff Waters excoriated me for writing an “orgasmic” review of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” taking me to task for condoning that film’s lurid, stylized violence and accusing me of “bloodlust.” (Let the record show that he did sign off with “Have a nice day.”)
I’m not sure a 21
2-star review qualifies as “orgasmic.” But I take Mr. Waters’s point that, in my “Django Unchained” review, I wasn’t hard enough on Tarantino’s glib, fetishistic use of violence, even if I criticized him for going overboard with “gunfire, gore and geysers of blood.”
I might have been more troubled by the obsessive reenactments and first-person point-of-view in “Jack Reacher,” but upon reflection I harbored deeper misgivings about the exaggerated, spaghetti-Western violence of “Django Unchained” than I let on — in part because I was able, at least intellectually, to adopt Tarantino’s own ironic distance, in part because I appreciated the political-historical context he used as his conceptual conceit.
So far, filmgoers seem to be making similar distinctions, albeit for murky reasons. Whereas “Jack Reacher” was a nonstarter at the box office, “Django Unchained” scored Tarantino his biggest box-office debut when it opened on Christmas Day, doing even better than his hit World War II-era burlesque, “Inglourious Basterds,” three years ago.
It could be that fans of the Jack Reacher novels simply rejected Cruise as a man who in one book was described as resembling “a gorilla with its face smashed in.” Or could it be that, post-Newtown, Americans are beginning to question an addiction to screen violence that’s as old as “The Great Train Robbery,” and the degree of realism they will and won’t accept in the name of entertainment? Is the vicarious depravity of “Django” okay because it’s so easily compartmentalized as outlandish fantasy? Or does it reflect an unhealthy preoccupation with brutality that Americans still refuse to confront?
Cultural consensus emerges over time at the multiplex and beyond: By this index, “Zero Dark Thirty” will either become the cinematic-shorthand for the war on terror that “All the President’s Men” is for Watergate, or it will be as quickly forgotten as “W.” was when it sought to dramatize George W. Bush’s presidency. While viewers have endorsed Tarantino’s hip, stylized grammar of aggression, it remains to be seen whether they’ll vote for or against next month’s coming attractions, which the Hollywood Reporter recently noted include a startling number of films featuring graphic gun violence.
I don’t know where this national discussion will wind up. But I do know that it won’t be led by politicians, pundits or even presidents. Instead it will be led by spectators who, one confounding data point at a time, will tell us whether a new argument has really begun or an old one has ended in a stalemate, again.