Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood debuted toward the end of summer. It is star-packed with Leonardo DeCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, who all shine. It features Tarantino’s usual collection of old-timers like Clu Gulager and Bruce Dern in bit parts. It includes dozens of inside Hollywood references and inside Tarantino jokes his like ever-present Red Apple Cigarettes. It also features an ending that re-writes history and raises significant theological questions.
I have mixed feelings about Tarantino. I’ve seen six of his nine feature films and parts of some of the others. I appreciate his movies as stylish, literate, and intelligent. I treasure the monologues by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction and Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. But I am troubled by the inevitable explosions of violence in his movies. It bothered me that I saw Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood the same week as this summer’s shootings in El Paso and Dayton. I wondered if any of the other people in the theater felt like I did or even noticed the irony of watching violence as entertainment after so much real violence on our streets.
Warning: Plot spoilers ahead
As I watched the violent denouement of Once Upon a Time, my mind flashed back to the endings of two other Tarantino films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. History is reversed in each of these films as well. In Inglorious Basterds, Adolf Hitler and several other Nazi leaders are trapped in a theater and massacred. That ending caught me by surprise: I expected Tarantino’s film to stay true to the historical record and was certain Hitler would somehow escape. I will admit to feeling some satisfaction when he didn’t. By the time Django Unchained came around I had learned my lesson—the film’s final bloodbath and fiery destruction of a Southern mansion didn’t surprise me. If you can kill Hitler, why not take on slavery? Why can’t an armed bad-ass black man walk unmolested out of the pre-war South? And even though I had heard members of the Manson family were portrayed in Tarantino’s latest film, I wasn’t sure what their fate would be until watching it. I wasn’t surprised that they were given a similar treatment as Hitler and the slave owners; in this case a combination of pit bull attack, dog food can to the head, punching, stabbing, shooting, drowning, and immolation via flamethrower. The ending is so over the top it’s cartoonish.
As I watched the violence unfold this time, I had a thought. What if instead of making a cartoon Tarantino is making a theological statement? What if he is postulating what our world would look like if God directly intervened in preventing bad things from happening? If this is the case, on some levels his God is more satisfying than my God, because his God violently undoes gross injustice while mine seems to let the wicked prosper. His God is a God of great vengeance and furious rebuke.
I’m not injecting God into the Tarantino universe; Tarantino does it with biblical citations and by closing these movies with fire. An unquenchable fire always accompanies Tarantino’s moment of judgment and the fires in these movies are surely depictions of hell.
There is more simplicity to the God of the Tarantino movies than the God of the Bible. Tarantino’s God regularly destroys bad people. Wouldn’t it be great if the world worked that way, if only drunk drivers were killed in car accidents and only child abusers got incurable cancer? In real life, innocent families die at the hands of drunk drivers and wonderful people are diagnosed daily with cancer. Why doesn’t God step in?
“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Martin Luther King famously said. We hope that is true and along with the psalmist we cry “How long, Lord, how long?” Tarantino doesn’t wait: justice will arrive before the movie ends, swift and violent with apocalyptic overtones. Justice in a Tarantino film doesn’t involve arresting someone or even stopping them with a bullet. The offender will be mauled, beaten, stabbed, shot dozens (if not hundreds) of times, and then burnt to a hellacious crisp.
Sometimes I wish our God was more directly involved in correcting human affairs. But when I look at the mayhem in Tarantino’s wake, I am glad God doesn’t work that way. A God whose every move was obvious wouldn’t require love or faith to believe in. And since everyone has sinned and fallen short, it’d just be a matter of time before each of us got what he or she deserved via millstone, pit bull, or flame thrower. Towers, as Jesus noted while clearing up some bad theology in Luke 13:4, would be crushing people left and right. In the meantime, every moment of every day would be full of anxious fear. As much as I’d like the injustice of the world to go away, I’ve pinned my hopes on a God who judges and redeems instead of one who judges and destroys.