The Art of Brutality

What do we make of deliberate acts of violence and cruelty on the screen – if we can stand to watch them?  A.O. Scott, the movie critic of The New York Times, commented on two particularly violent episodes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:  “While the film may want to draw a moral distinction between the episodes — one an unprovoked and heinous assault, the other an act of righteous vengeance — their intensity renders them equivalent.

“In other words, movie violence has a way of existing for its own sake. It can’t really be rationally defended or condemned, only experienced and judged according to taste.”  (See, “Brutal Truths About Violence.”)

I can’t agree.  I happened to see the film over the weekend, and what Scott called “an act of righteous vengeance” was, yes, vengeance and, yes, it seemed justified by the sexual assault against which it retaliated.  But as the victim returned to her rapist, bashed him, trussed him, taped his mouth, and then proceeded to crudely tattoo over his body a “confession” of his crimes, I was mesmerized by what I could only call an example of the refined art of cruelty.  At that moment in the film, we did not know all the past experiences that shaped her revenge, but it was clear that this was no mere act of violence.  It was shaped by intelligence and passion to destroy the soul of the rapist.

To be sure, Scott has a point.  Much violence on the screen seems generic and manipulative, punctuating the rhythm of the narrative.  And it can be merely aesthetic, allowing us to appreciate how a bullet emerges from flesh like a flower unfolds.  But in the hands of a good director, it can have meaning — as it usually has meaning in life.

I could hardly bear to witness the cruelty, but I was mesmerized by the fierceness of its intent.