As a longtime fan of the action and crime genres, I have a distinct appreciation for well executed on-screen violence–from The Dirty Dozen to The Sopranos to my latest obsession, HBO’s Game of Thrones. The second season of Game of Thrones started earlier this month, and, having set the bar fairly high in terms of blood and nudity in its first season (which ended following the graphic beheading of one of its most likeable characters), raised it substantially in no time. Not only do sex, death and incest remain the show’s central means of ratcheting up tension and driving its many plot lines, they have been joined by gruesome torture, infanticide and still more incest.
The above description may not make you want to watch Game of Thrones, a nd, if such is the case, I can hardly blame you. Indeed, I’ve found my own fanboyism tempered by the new season’s impossible ante of unpleasantness. It’s given me cause to consider the purpose of cinematic violence and at what point onscreen gore becomes its own justification.
Looking at two of my favorite movies–Scarface and Goodfellas–sheds some light on this. The former, a classic cautionary tale of a gangster’s meteoric rise and equally dramatic fall from power, is famously one of the most profane films ever. It also features a man being hacked to death with a chainsaw in a Miami motel room and another hanged from a hovering helicopter. In the case of that film, the violence and the foul language serve to create a realistic (or so I imagine) depiction of the world from which protagonist Tony Montana emerged–and eventually conquered. It raises the stakes while giving some insight into just what kind of person he was. Was it necessary to splatter Montana with his friend’s blood in that infamous chainsaw scene? Probably not, but I don’t object. It makes a very memorable (and historically realistic) point about the lengths people were willing to go to protect their interest in the 1980s Miami drug trade and the kind of person you’d need to be to go toe-to-toe with them as Montana did.
Goodfellas, one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films, has its share of graphic violence, but in true fashion, it is done with grace, dark humor and the added benefit of one of the best film soundtracks of all time. You need look no further than the murder montage to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla (Piano Exit)”, in which the camera slowly pans and zooms across the corpses of half a dozen murdered mobsters while Ray Liotta’s laconic voiceover explains why they had to go. Like Scarface, this serves the narrative, as well as character development and exposition. Unlike Scarface, Scorsese uses music brilliantly–contrasting the easy tone of the song with the gruesome nature of the visuals–to show just how senseless these murders were and also how much they were a part of normal life for the film’s characters.
Game of Thrones feels different. While much of the new season’s violence occurs at the command of the evil young king Joffrey, it seems as though the same point could have been made just as well with half as much brutality. We get it–he’s a bloodthirsty psychopath. Do we need to see a boy’s mouth fill with blood after being run through with a sword? Or hear a young man’s screams as his body is broken on a torturer’s rack? These things certainly give us insights into the world of the series and what its baser characters are prepared to do to each other to protect their interests, but this is only true to a point. Then there’s the argument that these things really did happen in human history–and far worse. But is that something we really need to see on primetime television? I suppose the only fair way to evaluate this violence is in the context of the entire series, which has several seasons yet to go. Still, with the bar for graphic violence constantly edging higher, one wonders when it will reach its limit and what kind of awfulness that could possibly be.