Nearly all critical discussions of Quentin Tarantino’s work start and end with the question of style. His films’ dialogue, their intertextual references, their spectacular violence and their cinematographic finesse are a few of the elements commonly cited as proof that in contemporary cinema Tarantino is a peerless stylist and technician. But the flipside of this claim is that there is little sense in our pursuing a deeper, more complex layer of meaning in his work. Style over substance. That’s the Tarantino maxim.
In what follows I want to convince you that this line of thinking is deeply misguided. Not only that. I submit that Tarantino’s work exposes a serious, even abyssal gap in our thinking about the nature of justice in a way that few other contemporary works of art have been able to accomplish. This is a bold claim, and it is further complicated by the fact that I take his most recent film, Django Unchained, to constitute a significant step backwards. In order to put these pieces together, and to set aside the critical debris, it is best to begin by looking at the sweep of Tarantino’s work; we discover a surprising arc that has gone largely unnoticed.
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two of his early features, share a similar basic structure: both films chart the intersecting plot threads of a large, complicated web of characters in order to play on and with the question of whether these encounters are a matter of fate or chance — metaphysical necessity or meaningless contingency. Recall one of the most famous scenes in Pulp Fiction, where Jules and Vince are missed by a barrage of bullets headed right for them; Jules takes their survival as a divine mandate to leave behind his life as a gangster. But the apparently adventitious intersection of plots can be read as undermining his conviction in any sort of fundamental, underlying unity to things. However we choose to interpret it, a broader metaphysical claim is made here by Tarantino concerning the fundamental nature of the universe: a nature that may be cosmically determined or radically, entropically underdetermined.
In Jackie Brown, we find the beginnings of a turn away from the web-like structure and deeper metaphysical commitments of the early films to a focus on a more atomistic project — one where an individual who is a victim of injustice takes it upon herself to rectify that injustice. The two volumes of Kill Bill represent the culmination of this change in vision. They follow a bride who is left for dead on her wedding day; her friends, loved ones, and unborn child all appear to have been slaughtered by Bill, from whom she then seeks to exact revenge. What this translates to on screen exactly is what has come to define (and define so problematically) Tarantino’s work — the realisation of justice by any means necessary. But it is this very simplicity that can easily lead us astray. Tarantino’s project is much more ambitious than it first appears. Here he is throwing down the gauntlet to our overly-aestheticised, complacent moral economy, and he does this largely through a negative move, by not providing us with what is almost universally taken to be the decisive mark of artistic sophistication and profundity — not providing us, that is, with the mark of ambiguity. According to this now near-axiomatic standard, the most successful works of contemporary art will lay out an apparently transparent moral state of affairs with the very goal of undermining this transparency in order to leave us with the uncomfortable, vertiginous feeling that our sympathies have no clear mapping and that we must, in turn, suspend any claim to moral or metaphysical truth. I want to call this phenomenon an “ambiguity fetish”, and it has convinced not only the critical community, but also artists that this is the royal road to vision and achievement.
Tarantino directly challenges this dogma. His radical move is to suggest not only a repolarisation of the viewer’s moral compass (where good and evil are demonstrable and accessible), but to ask the question of exactly what is at stake when we experience or perceive injustice. Should our reaction be narrativise in such a way that the line between victim and perpetrator is blurred or, further, erased altogether? Or is this default stance, perhaps, a way of avoiding the far more radical and terrifying question of responsibility, the question of what must be done to face and face down that ineradicable fact of injustice? Lurking behind the fascination with ambiguity is the argument that these sorts of Tarantino-esque questions of responsibility are for the most part meaningless. Nothing is clearer than our having successfully exorcised the aesthetically and metaphysically tyrannical assumption these questions belie — a belief in the possibility of an unconditional, absolute account of Justice or Injustice. Such a claim will of course always be made from a safe distance. If confronted with a specific, concrete injustice — especially those injustices Tarantino takes aim at — few will come forward to defend their account of this kind of relativism.
But whatever commitments we do carefully (and ambivalently) endorse in the end, Tarantino forces us to confront the means necessary to see these sorts of commitments realised — not just to say them out loud, to pay lip service to them, but to see what it would mean to genuinely stand for and behind them. We can put it this way: the death of a grounding, absolute Centre (of an absolute, divine, cosmic perspective) need not imply the impossibility of making any sort of strong metaphysical-moral claim whatsoever. It may mean, and this is what I take Tarantino to take it to mean, something more like this — a migration in the very locus of responsibility. What dies at this pivotal moment is, in other words, not morality or its content, but the divine guarantee of that morality. We can no longer fall back on a God to guarantee for us that things are as they should be. There is no final, guiding order to the world that will make sure everything is in its right place. This task is now ours, the responsibility ours. And this is a terrifying prospect. We would not be alone in wanting to turn away from it. We might even consider constructing an entire aesthetic belief system around blinding ourselves to it…