‘River,’ ‘Bill’ offer differing views of violence

Violence as high art or violence as the destructor of the human soul; that is the question raised by two recently released movies, Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River.”

The two filmmakers are at the top of their respective games here in two entirely different movies. One chronicles the lives of three men and how they are affected by choices they have made and the violence that both do and have done to them. The other simply shows us the gore for what it is and does not even pretend to make a moral judgement.

That doesn’t mean one is better than the other or more valid as art. Comparing these two films is like comparing a Dali to a Da Vinci; one is twisted and skewed but wonderful to look at, the other is beautiful and disturbing and so damned powerful and awe-inspiring you’ll think about it for days afterward.

In “Mystic River,” Eastwood quietly weaves a tale about the choices we make and how we can suffer for those choices. Our choices have a power to them and, by making one, we forever change our futures, like a rock thrown into a river forever alters the current beyond it.

The film begins with three friends in the early 70s playing in the streets of Boston. The boys, while writing their names in wet cement, are confronted by two men pretending to be the police. One of the boys gets in the car with the men and winds up imprisoned and sexually abused for several days.

The boys, as well as all those around them, are forever changed because of that choice and the violence that came from it.

The movie is disguised as a thriller – a very good one as thrillers go – and the acting is marvelous. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon each give an Oscar-worthy performance as the three one-time friends, now merely acquaintances, who are reunited after the tragic murder of one of their daughters. The murder causes a flood of emotional trauma and brings to the surface the sunken pain and scars that was caused by the abduction.

Though the film is about violence in reality this is actually one of Eastwood’s least violent movies. There is some blood, but it’s mild and secondary, and the physical violence is as limited.

Eastwood has already proved he is more than capable of making violent, yet meaningful, films. His last great film, “Unforgiven,” tackles the same sort of subject and was his most violent and his most critically successful. Although “Unforgiven” was a better film, what Eastwood does in “Mystic River” may be even more difficult to accomplish, and what he pulls off is a film that shows there is an awesome power in this river in which we live that is deep and quiet and often terrifying.

Tarantino, on the other hand, has no such noble aspirations in his movie, “Kill Bill volume 1,” a gruesome, violent, wonderfully-choreographed bloodbath that, honest-to-God, had me smiling and whistling a tune as I left the theater.

Violence here is simply a means to Tarantino’s twisted end, which is to create an homage to those that came before (including, ironically, Eastwood). “Bill” is a movie by a guy that loves movies, especially those that are now relegated to late night television. Tarantino has studied all things vengeful, samurai and spaghetti Westerns and any other film that uses revenge as the theme, and has regurgitated them back onto the screen.

At the hands of anyone else this would be a complete mess. As it is, it’s just messy.

The movie is a visual tour de force, black and white, color, anime, a hodgepodge of lighting and editing styles and it may very well be the bloodiest movie ever made.

The story is simply a tale of revenge, concocted, I’m sure, in just a matter of minutes, and exists only to keep the movie from imploding on the weight of itself.

The acting is pitch perfect and really more difficult in this movie than one might think. Tarantino obviously has a way with actors. It takes a strong director to convince the players, cut and bleeding and surrounded by severed limbs and spurting fountains of blood, to act as if this is normal world they are portraying. But they do. There is not a wink or nod in the bunch. Especially good are Uma Thurman as the revenge-seeking woman with no name and Lucy Liu as primary foe and combatant in this volume (Volume 2 is to be released in Feb. 2004).

Much will be made of both these movies in the coming months. “Mystic River” will surely be a multiple Oscar contender, garnering well-deserved acting, directing, cinematography and writing awards, and “Kill Bill” will be the topic of much violence-in-media discussions.

And both of these are right. A movie like “Bill” should be discussed and the significant questions it raises about violence should be answered, and “River” should be awarded – it is great art. But what we should be doing, and we won’t because we don’t talk about things that are important, is seriously discuss a movie like “Mystic River.”

The film is not just important as a work of art because it touches us deeply and stirs our emotions. It is important because, if we did talk about it, we would begin discussing the important things – things like humanity and suffering and evil and God and maybe then we’ll start to understand why we do the violence we do and that’s at least a small step toward stopping it.