Tarantino’s bloody moralism and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”

In Quentin Tarantino’s films, horrifying passions are vented in the name of justice. Not only is evil real, but it is part of our own hearts.

Detail from a poster for the movie "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood"

Quentin Tarantino has spent the last decade rewriting American history. His business is now poetic justice: the oppressed return in time, through Hollywood, to punish their historical oppressors. Inglorious Basterds (2009) had Jews kill Hitler, Django Unchained (2012) had a liberated slave kill slave owners, and The Hateful Eight (2015) had another liberated black man kill other Southern racists. In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019), the murderous Manson cult is punished.

With these stories, Tarantino is pointing out that the narrative of moral Progress is not the whole truth. Slavery is over and all the Nazis are dead, but evil persists, giving the lie to Progress.

More, the horrible violence in these movies is supposed to reveal something wrong with us. In the name of justice, horrifying passions are vented. Not only is evil still real, but it is part of our own hearts. Tarantino suggests we have a deep, dark desire to practice cruelties on the evil among us, safe in the knowledge we have all the power—safe, too, in the knowledge that we have clean, if bloody, consciences. “They” deserve the worst we can give them, and it turns out that worst is really inside of us.

Going back to his first movies, Tarantino has always pointed out that in our hearts we want revenge, but the ethic of revenge always leads to the slaughterhouse. This is a very moralistic idea. His message is not Jesus’ message of grace and redemption, but for all the irony of his storytelling, as early as Pulp Fiction, he showed us that the man who lives by the gun—Vincent, played by John Travolta—dies a ridiculous, ugly death, whereas the man who puts the gun away—Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson—moved by a miracle to risk his life for the sake of others who threaten his life, lives to preach forgiveness.

But perhaps even more unacceptable to the narrative of Progress is that the fight against evil is fought by manly men who are very dangerous and not at all politically correct. They not only fight evil, but to some extent they also reject moral rules. Their dedication to violence makes them seemingly super-human, but it can also make them look like monsters.

Since movies are a form of storytelling, a fiction rather than a fact, to make sense of this, we should compare these protagonists with the America we see online, where people constantly talk about destroying their enemies, claiming that violence is justified against evil people, if not indeed morally obligatory. The Internet is as ugly as Tarantino has long told us our own hearts are. We thrill to violence because we are not the angels we pretend we are—and in the pursuit of angelic justice, we might turn into beasts.

This is not to deny that Tarantino is a liberal of the kind that has been popular in America until recently, committed to free expression in art and free speech—the kind now under attack by “cancel culture” Progressivism. He’s obviously not a Christian, but he does something Christians desperately need—he persuasively portrays the dark passions of the heart, the evil inside all of us, which cannot be abolished. He reminds us we’re all sinners. None of us are divine agents of justice and we should reject the false pieties of victorious Progressive violence against reactionary evil. History is not redemptive in political terms. We are not really angels compared to the devilish previous generations.

In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the bad guys are the hippies who murdered Sharon Tate and her guests on August 9, 1969, and, on the subsequent night, murdered the LaBiancas. The good guys are reactionary types who live in the myth of the Western: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Dalton used to play a Western sheriff on TV, but he failed to transition to the movies, so he’s on his way to obscurity. Booth used to be Dalton’s stuntman, but since work has dried up, he’s a factotum. He lives in a trailer with his dog, but spends most of his time driving Dalton around and they spend evenings drinking and watching film of the smaller and less prestigious roles Dalton still lands. Booth’s the kind of manly man Dalton played on TV. Whatever may have been true of the Old West, in Hollywood stuntmen do not share in the glamour—they only do the dangerous work.

In the 50s ad 60s, everybody liked Westerns, but we cannot have Western heroes without the evil they have to face, which none of us want. Our love of heroes therefore tends to the fake, which we can enjoy in safety. On TV, the good guys win every week during the season and no one minds that Western history is turning into fantasy.

In order, on the other hand, for the non-glamorous stuntman to be a hero, we have to see the ugliness and evil in the glamour. Here, Tarantino is strangely shy. We see almost nothing of Manson and are given no sense of how he got a cult started in L.A. and why he was free to do so, but the relation between glamour and evil would seem to be important to the story.

Tarantino focuses on our protagonists, to show that ugliness is what prepares Dalton and Booth for this ugly deed, which is necessary in order to protect the beautiful people adored as celebrities. The word “hippie” is an insult in their mouths—they have prejudices and they do not apologize. They have sins in their past—Booth is said to have killed his wife, which seems to have been an accident. He got away in the sense of not being convicted, but it’s changed him: now he has blood on his hands. Such men are necessary only if moral Progress is never reliable—if evil can come back in an unexpected way—for example, by way of the hippies we tend to consider good, or at least innocuous. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood shows us how surprising it is when someone out of the blue comes and says he’s come to do the devil’s work, the terrible phrase used by the murderers—normal life is over and the beautiful illusions of California are shattered. The shocking finale to a leisurely, touching, funny movie is intended to encourage moral seriousness. We owe Tarantino a debt of gratitude for that.

Tarantino’s recent movies are beautiful, most of them shot by three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson and scored by the famous Ennio Morricone. They are all very long and try to revive the older tradition of Hollywood filmmaking, telling stories that impress audiences and provoke thought and therefore controversy. But they also are meant to correct moral prejudices and remind us we go to the movies because they portray the dangers within our own hearts, including the ethic of revenge now rebranded as Progress.


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About Titus Techera 21 Articles
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The Federalist, Law & Liberty, and Modern Age.

15 Comments

  1. I watched ‘Kill Bill’ 1 & 2, about 30 minutes of ‘Pulp Fiction’ until I got sick and had to leave, and another of his films the name of which I forget.

    Technically he is a gifted filmmaker, but his films are incredibly violent, and to me they are nothing more than trash.

    It’s worth pointing out that the release of ‘Kill Bill’ #2 coincided with the 5th anniversary of The Columbine massacres.

    • Your mention of the Columbine shootings is interesting, since no one really knows what motivated the two murderers. The popular narrative–that they were two bullied social outcasts–turns out to be completely false, as shown in Dave Cullen’s well-researched book, “Columbine.” It would seem that the two planned it and did it because they could, and for them it was just so much fun. Until it wasn’t. We may struggle against the evil in our hearts, but we cannot eradicate it. We do not, however, need to act upon it.

      • The argument could be made that movies such as those Tarantino is known for could be a contributing factor to the violence in our society today.

  2. Why aren’t we blaming Tatantino for the recent mass murders. He’s certainly contributed more to violence in our society than has Trump despite our bishops’ attempt to demonize the president. We certainly do live in a fallen world.

  3. In my opinion, Tarantino films are long self-indulgent formulaic affairs that revel in violence. Here’s the formula for a Tarantino movie:

    1) Homage to a particular time period or aesthetic to provide an illusion of depth and authenticity.

    2) Long winded, slightly entertaining banter/dialogue. When dialogue exhausts itself (because of its banality)…

    3) Graphic violence to distract.

    4) Repeat.

    That is essentially every scene in a Tarantino movie repeated ad nauseam. It only appears edgy and entertaining because Hollywood movies are so boring and unoriginal. Once you become aware of the Tarantino formula it becomes glaringly obvious that his movies are nothing more than emotionally manipulative fluff that actually mean or signify nothing.

  4. Tarantino while artistic, innovative, theater packing seems to fulfill his fantasies of vengeance in an amoral culture that has little left. Visions of heroism in hyperbolic outrage in Once Upon a Time pits evil social radicals against affluent reprobates. Titus Techera’s excellent insight however perceives more. That, “He [Tarantino] does something Christians desperately need—he persuasively portrays the dark passions of the heart, the evil inside all of us, which cannot be abolished”. The catharsis we filmgoers vicariously experience in villain [is not that identity with the dark unforgiving heart we Christians struggle with?] savaging villain. Quentin Tarantino born Catholic claims he doesn’t practice religion. There’s a mysterious capacity in the apostate Catholic I venture thru indelible baptism to identify the uncomfortable moral truth. I struggle with that when media superstars, Democrats accuse the Pres of murder, or call Catholics who oppose abortion violators of human rights.

    • Father Peter’s remark makes sense, but ultimately the “reflection” upon our fallen, defective human nature–those “dark passions of the heart” via the story line–comes at a price. It requires us to travel along a gross, graphic and gratuitously violent road, so much so that the journey becomes self-defeating, leaving us without hope. And for me, that ‘s not entertainment–or worth 11 bucks! We’d be better served reading Ezra and Nehemiah (speaking of the fallen human condition)–at least we know there is redemption and a coming Redeemer!

  5. “He’s obviously not a Christian, but he does something Christians desperately need — he persuasively portrays the dark passions of the heart, the evil inside all of us, which cannot be abolished.” I tend to think Tarantino is overly persuasive in that he fails to show that other portion of the human heart – restraint or temperance, the “good” inside all of us. Perhaps some science needs to be applied to his approach – a study of how certain people react to his movies (in a controlled environment). I hypothsize that the emotional response, especially in the mentally unstable, goes well beyond that of the catharsis of Greek drama.

    • Sin Inigo is also in the heart of Man even in a controlled environment. Pornography an example. Titus Techera nor I are beatifying Tarantino. Neither does Techera as plainly said condone the violence and its repercussions. Nonetheless to suggest that vicious response to evil is itself evil does in turn confirm the good. Even non believers discern that, which is why they are responsible for their evil.

      • Dear Father: Pornography is not at issue here. Did you see the Kill Bill movies? In one scene the heroine rides into a nightclub and savagely kills an entire gang of thugs. She begins by severing the arm of an “unarmed” adversary whom you can see writhing over and over again spouting blood in the sadistic background while the heroine proceeds to kill every member of the gang in ascending order – the least skilled to the most – in a theatrically purposeful, hierarchical blood bath. “Condone the violence”?! In the past, Catholic movie reviews would just inform the readers of the extraordinary violence and indicate that this is a movie to be avoided. But this is the “new” evangelization where Tarentino is (understood and) raised up for telling us that we all have deep dark desires (duh!) while I, a practicing and faithful Catholic, get a lecture (brief as it was by you) for suggesting that there is good in man such that restraint keeps him from becoming a vicious vigilante (I can assure you that I understand the concept of consupiscence and the temptation that comes in the quiet of the night, although I don’t dwell dastardly on vengeance against my ememies because I have a rational soul). Interestingly (and honestly), I didn’t read your post until after you responded to me, so now I can see why you addressed me directly. And yes non-believers do “discern” (thus- thank you for tacitly acknowledging the restraint I mentioned in my original post). They don’t usually sit at home planning mass-murder, although Tarentino may like them to ponder it.

        • My response Inigo not aimed to redress you personally some may like myself have unfortunately had experiences as I did growing up in Brooklyn that left me with scars and susceptibility to those dark thoughts referred to, and for which I frequently must ask Christ’s forgiveness. So as I’m pleased you don’t deal with the same I’m thankful for the grace and for the ability to counsel others who suffer similarly.

  6. With all respect why not cut to the chase. This film director is a baby faced pudding of a man who hides behind massive security. He makes fanciful violent films to line his pockets, and never ever braves the real world. Catch him in a simply lit subway or seedy supermarket late at night? Not a chance. He lives in a world light years away but is mighty grateful I’d say for all the suckers who think him artistic and moody.

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