Like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino has now made an American slavery film to go with his Holocaust film (Inglourious Basterds, 2009)—and like Spielberg, he secured Best Picture nominations for both of his epic journeys into shameful human history. But while Spielberg treats his topics with terrified reverence, Tarantino does not. Quite the opposite. Their grand themes are deployed almost exclusively to provide shock value.
By using these unimaginably horrific examples of human evil and suffering as the backdrop to visceral revenge fantasies, Tarantino gives undeniable oomph and emotional resonance to his true lifelong purpose. That purpose is really quite astonishingly narrow: paying homage to the disreputable exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s he loves so much. A peculiar ambition, to be sure, but becoming famous and respected and garlanded for riffing off disreputable junk must have its perverse rewards for Tarantino, who is among the most perversely talented moviemakers in movie history.
The junk films that inspire him—spaghetti Westerns, Japanese and Hong Kong gangster flicks, European sex romps, American blaxploitation pictures—were in such bad taste that they went beyond conventional categories into some new realm. These movies really did make explicit all the things that had long been implicit in the cinema: the charged pleasure that comes from watching staged violence, the crazed joys of plotted revenge, a woman’s breasts. But all those transgressions crossed into the mainstream fairly quickly. The literally titled Bad Taste, made in New Zealand, was the can-this-really-get-any-worse outrage of 1987; now its director, Peter Jackson, makes drippingly sentimental films about hobbits in the Shire with $300-million budgets.
When he was starting out in the early 1990s, Tarantino took the American cinema to places it had never been. He had a character cut off a guy’s ear while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In Pulp Fiction (1994), he had John Travolta’s character plunge a hypodermic needle into Uma Thurman’s heart to keep her from dying of an overdose, and he had a vicious black crime-boss tied up and raped. Tarantino wanted the violence to sting, to provide a buzz like touching a tongue to a nine-volt battery, and he succeeded.
These weren’t the only elements of his movies that caught everyone’s attention. It was his ability to mix such barbarities with amusing bits of repartee, funny exchanges, and hyper-wordy monologues that gave them their special kick. But after he staged his one-man assault on the American cinema, he struggled. He made the languorous Jackie Brown in 1997, which I quite liked for its evocation of middle-age disappointment, but others did not. And he struck out entirely with the two Kill Bill films in 2003 and 2004, in which Uma Thurman slaughters many people and is tortured by many others for a total of four hours. Nothing Tarantino did in this misguided project was all that surprising, and the plot motivation—a woman trying to get her daughter back from a kidnapping father—was, in the end, little more than you’d get in a Lifetime movie.
Then, in a burst of demonic inspiration, came Tarantino’s decision to make brazen use of historical calamities to deepen his tales of revenge. By doing so, he would test every possible limit of taste, as his idols had. His method was perhaps even more transgressive, though: He turned topics that present-day standards of taste and comportment now deem fitting only for low-lit exhibitions staged at funereal museums into blood-soaked frenzies.
In Inglourious Basterds, a crew of Jewish soldiers hunts down and tortures Nazis during World War II in preparation for what may be the greatest plot twist in modern cinema—a twist so startling that, even though the movie came out years ago, I don’t feel comfortable repeating it here.
In Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx plays the title character, a tortured runaway slave who, in 1858, enters the service of Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz is played by Tarantino’s greatest discovery, Christoph Waltz, an unknown Austrian TV actor who won an Oscar for playing the multilingual Nazi Jew-hunter in Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is, if possible, even better in Django, the first Tarantino movie that actually attempts a bit of character development and moral growth amid the mayhem.