It was a hot summer night in the middle of August, and someone said, “let’s watch a movie.” For some reason, we picked Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2013.) It was fairly bad, of course, but that’s alright. What amazed me was the shocking level of explicit, graphic violence present on a PG-13 movie. And thus, the idea behind this whole article was planted.
Let’s start with the [SPOILER ALERT all throughout]: Jack Reacher opens with the POV of the bad guy’s high-power rifle. We stay with him, looking through the scope, even when “we” begin executing people. Five victims, one of them a nanny carrying a child. Fast-forward half an hour, when Jack (Tom Cruise) is already investigating the shooting. He takes on five thugs, after politely advising them to leave. We hear bones snapping, joints twisting, skulls bashing. But hey, Jack’s defending himself. Farther down the road, he takes a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head — fret not, he doesn’t die. The assailants then proceed to hit each other accidentally like the Marx Brothers’ cabin in A Night At The Opera. It all ends when Jack sticks his thumb in one of the thugs’ left eye. He then takes the other guy’s gun and twists his fingers — caught between the trigger and the guard — until they cracks loudly. And then Reacher keeps spraining them, until the we hear the joints snap and the ligaments tear up. But see, this is nothing, because the true, ultimate, bad guy (Werner Herzog!) is much worse. He tells the story of how he bit off his own frozen fingers in Siberia to avoid gangrene. The tale is a metaphor to be applied to a supplicating goon: if he does the same, his life will be spared. The goon gets a bullet in the head, of course, but only after having tried to bite his thumb off — unsuccessfully. Now, the dude who just pulled the trigger on his colleague later punches a 19-year old, sexy girl in the face, knocking her out, and then uses his massive hand to cover her respiratory tracts and thus smother her to death. So we need Jack to do something: he first takes an armed, bad guy out by hitting him in the head with a large, spiky rock. Twice. And finally, Jack comes face to face with the bad guy who asphyxiated the young, sexy girl. He throws his assault rifle away and we enter a world of bone-cracking, joint twisting, and blood-dripping punches and chokeholds. The thing ends with Jack pinning the dude to the ground: he leverages all his weight against the poor man’s twisted arm, places his foot on the guy’s neck, and – wait for it – snaps it like a twig. (Don’t fret, that last one beat happens offscreen. Please…) Here’s the kicker: IMDB’s Parents Guide for Jack Reacher says, “Other scenes feature execution-style killings and allusions to torture. Not graphic and very brief.”
So I began wondering, Where are we going? What are we doing to PG-13? So I decided to dive into the major releases of the 2013 Summer movie season, and examine them as far as their portrayal of violence goes. I’ve discarded the R-rated titles and focused only on the PG-13 ones. I ask the reader to keep in mind what the MPAA website says about the PG-13 rating: “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent (sic.)” I took notes of the Parents Guide section on IMDB. For the record, I’m intently ignoring the “Sex & Nudity” and “Profanity” issues, but I encourage you to take a look, and then consider if this is really the world of PG-13.
Fast & Furious 6: “three prisoners with knives attack another prisoner, who knocks two of them unconscious, knocks down and stabs the third in the thigh twice, and bloodies the fallen man’s mouth with a punch.” White House Down: “a man is shot several times in the chest and we see bloody wounds. A gunman shoots a man in the head (we see a bit of blood splatter) and he falls to the floor dead. A man is shot and he falls back on the floor (we see blood on his chest and abdomen).” Then, “a man slashes the throat of another man as he runs past him (we hear a squish) and then stabs another man in the back. The man stabs another man in the back with a pen.” With a what? A pen. Later, “a gunman holds a pre-teen girl on a balcony and threatens her with his gun. [He] tells her father ‘I’m going to shoot your little girl in the stomach.’ The man slaps the pre-teen girl in the face, and then yells at her and holds a gun to her head.” That’s a young girl, people. With a gun to her head. On a superficial film that doesn’t aspire to anything but mere entertainment. Big-hit World War Z: “zombies […] bite people in the neck and suffer automatic rifle fire from soldiers (no blood is shown.)” Well, thank you. Red 2, a comedy by all counts: “Two men lie on a floor, unconscious; a woman steps on the throat of one of them, making him gag […] Another man’s legs hang over the end of a tub and while talking to a friend on the phone, she pours in two bottles of acid that smoke as the legs convulse; she pushes them into the tub and she adds another bottle of acid to end the scene.” Very hygienic. The Wolverine: “A woman stabs a man in the neck with a poisoned pen and he thrashes around and yells as his face bubbles and blisters.” A “poisoned pen”? First, what’s wrong with pens? And second, who poisons a pen? Who came up with that? But wait, the Acid Lady hasn’t had enough: “A woman spits what appears to be acid in a man’s face and we see his flesh bubble and blister as he screams.” Now we’re getting gruesome, aren’t we? Wait and see: “A woman stabs a man in the head and the neck (no blood is shown but we see the blades protruding from the head and neck.)” Thank you for noting “no blood is shown,” but in case you didn’t realize, there were “blades protruding” from someone’s head. Geez. Will Smith’s box-office bomb After Earth: “A young boy hides and watches as his sister is attacked and eventually killed by an alien; we see the woman being thrown and slashed and eventually stabbed through the back by the alien’s razor sharp talon.” And later: “Several bodies are shown impaled on a tree (branches are shown sticking through torsos). A teen boy finds two dead men impaled on tree limbs (we see blood on their faces and shirts).” Now it’s kids and teens. The ones we protect from unhealthy diets. And finally, the mother of all summer bombs. A movie that has cost to Walt Disney a (reported) loss of $190 million: The Lone Ranger. Apparently, the opening goes like this: “After a canyon gunfight that produces a lot of bloody wounds, the killer cuts out the heart of a Ranger and eats it with his back to the camera.” Cannibalism. Then, “a bandit hits a henchman with rocks of silver ore for being ‘stupid’ […] and shoots a Chinese worker dead for being ‘stupid’ (no blood is shown.)” Thanks again for not showing blood; that’s very thoughtful.
And I assume that’s enough. I apologize for the insistence on the data. But it’s very informative, isn’t it? What we’re saying here is that the most watched movies in the planet are persistently planting a seed of violence in the viewers, or at the very least, desensitizing them. An audience, by the way, which can be formed by kids — from really young kids to teens, but kids after all — accompanied by their foolhardy parents. And you know what’s a very common phenomenon in all these movies? People doing extremely violent stuff that results in no harm. Some people have warned us about the dangers of “imitative behavior,” but it seems we don’t give a damn. Time will tell. And the same goes for sex and nudity: a persistent message being sent to audiences worldwide that sex is free of charge, doesn’t require assuming responsibilities, that the human heart is sort of untouchable, etc. The result is self-evident: the highest divorce rates ever seen; broken families; broken hearts; objectified girls; a destructive (yet surprisingly permitted) porn industry that acts like venom in society… But when it comes to violence, it seems as if we lift the bar and let it all pass through. I’m including myself in the bunch: we smile elated as the good guy shatters some villain’s skull, and we stir in our seats when the bad dudes have the upper hand. But never forget, violence is always wrong, or almost always. Never forget, we do not need to foster violence, weapons, or torture in our already sickly society. Remember Aurora, Colorado? Newtown, Connecticut? Haven’t we had enough? Don’t listen to Hollywood pointing an accusatory finger towards the NRA — or viceversa. Here we all have a responsibility, whether as content creators or as an audience. It doesn’t do us any good, and if someone tries to tell you how in the past mankind was much worse (battles for land, Crusades, and whatnot), answer them that the last 100 years have been the most gruesome, bloodiest, deadliest years in human history.
This begs for the question: What can be on screen? I have a personal answer, but it’s one that appeals to each person’s conscience and therefore has very little use as a rule of thumb. It goes, more or less, like this: What can appear on screen? Whatever is necessary to tell a story that should be told, in its appropriate context. Does this make room for explicit content in terms of violence, drugs, sex and nudity, etc.? Yes, it does. Whenever it’s necessary, as opposed to gratuitous. And even then, there’s no need to overdo it. Showing something doesn’t mean showing it all the way. I firmly believe in the power of ellipsis. Think Gran Torino or Gone, Baby Gone. Look, however, at the much-acclaimed Drive (which, just to be clear, I thought was phenomenal.) Aren’t there two, or three scenes in that movie, at least, that weren’t necessary to achieve the same result? They were just an exercise on aesthetic “virtuosity” based on the power of mere shock value. But we didn’t need to see that thing involving a fork, did we? And that’s the final part of my take on this issue: the “appropriate context.” The technical advancement of these days allows to us to create extremely vivid depictions of reality. But that so-called “realism” is a big, fat lie. It makes us believe what we’re seeing is real — “the way it is” — but it’s not. Because in reality, if your buddy gets shot, you probably enter a state of shock. If you’re wounded in your shoulder, the pain is excruciating. If you enter a room full of dead bodies, you never recover from that — even if, at the end, you get the girl. If a bad guy assassinates your parents, no matter how hard you try to get revenge, it won’t heal you. War may seem beautiful and exciting in film, but ask any war reporter and they’ll tell you: war is not beautiful. Taking a life is never beautiful. Because poetic justice only works in poetry — or literature, film, or whichever. So we shouldn’t portray it as if it were part of real life.
I’m not just advocating for “not watching these films.” It’s about how we approach them. It’s okay to watch Jack Reacher and enjoy it, it doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do something stupid. We can’t prove a direct cause-effect relationship. But thinking in the long term, after hours and hours and more hours of graphic violence, one loses the sense of horror. And even if the majority of the audience aren’t out of their minds either (even though there might always be one or two), there’s always a chance we’re creating a background where violence is a trivial subject we joke about. And then, as the popular saying goes, “shit happens.”
(Via Álvaro Hernández) The Wrap reports about this issue of violence in non-R-rated films. A study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Ohio State University says gun violence on PG-13 films has tripled since 1985 to the point of surpassing gun violence on top-grossing R-rated films. Read more: “The Wrap: PG-13 Movies Have More Gun Violence Than R-Rated Films, Study Finds.“