Words Mightier Than Bullets: Tarantino on Story


Be warned, this will be a spoiler-filled discussion.

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker one can safely call iconic. The very mention of his name brings a specific style to mind, and films by other directors are often described as “Tarantino-esque,” which can be the highest praise or the lowest insult, depending on the critic. Even people who don’t watch his movies feel the influence of his works. My grandmother, who hasn’t watched a film made since 1975, recognizes him as the creator of those “awful movies about terrible people doing unspeakable things.” If you were to ask people what Tarantino’s films are about, a large number would say violence and cursing. Fans would point to the snappy dialogue and well-crafted characters. Film students might launch into a lecture on how all of his work pays homage to or steals from other movies. Not inaccurate, but a tad reductive.

While each of his films tells its own tale, there is one persistent theme across all of them, from Reservoir Dogs to The Hateful Eight: the power of storytelling. I’m not just saying that they are well-told stories to be held up as examples to learn from (although most of them are), but that each one features a scene, if not an entire plot, that revolves around telling a good story.

Storytelling is a vital skill in a Tarantino movie, as likely to save your life as dexterity with a pistol or a samurai sword.

Consider the incredibly tense tavern conversation from Inglourious Basterds. A group of spies engages a Nazi officer in barroom banter just to maintain their cover, the levity of their dialogue hardly concealing the menace beneath their words. Despite his claims to speak like a Berlin native, Lt. Archie Hicox’s odd accent arouses the suspicions of the Nazi officer, and Hicox barely placates him with a story that sounds just ridiculous enough to be true. And like many almost perfect stories, it is entirely undone by the tiniest flubbed detail, which results in the deaths of nearly everyone in the tavern.

The direct counterpoint to that scene would be the “Commode Story” from Reservoir Dogs, which shows us Mr. Orange, an undercover cop, learning an amusing anecdote about a drug deal to ingratiate himself with a bunch of criminals. His handler presses upon him the need to know every little detail in order to make his story believable, and it pays off. Watching him rehearse telling the tale, the viewer actually starts to feel the tension and panic of the awkward situation Mr. Orange describes even though we already know it's completely fabricated. Later in the film, Mr. Orange is in a situation where he must make up an excuse for killing another member of the crew. This time Orange’s cover story falls short because there is a crucial detail he doesn’t know, and just like in Basterds, a lot of lives are lost over a lie.

A similar thing happens in True Romance when Dennis Hopper is killed by Christopher Walken because the former was unable to make the latter believe he didn’t know his son’s whereabouts. The lesson is clear: telling a bad story can have consequences much worse than a disappointed audience.

In Tarantino’s universe, stories are not just entertaining or informative, but have real power to effect significant change. During his famous pep-talk at the beginning of Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine explains that his elite unit will be performing unspeakable atrocities so that tales of their terrible deeds will demoralize the enemy. It works so well that in a later scene we see Hitler himself irate that his soldiers are having nightmares about the Bear Jew, so he forbids any further mention of him. The Nazis are also attempting to deploy a powerful story, about a lone sniper who held a city against hundreds of Russians, in order to galvanize German soldiers to fight on. In Pulp Fiction, Butch goes back to retrieve his father’s watch despite the obvious danger because of the story Captain Koons told him when he was a young boy. The Bride’s account of righteous revenge convinces the legendary Hattori Hanzo to make one more sword so she can Kill Bill. An old German folktale inspires a dentist turned bounty hunter to help a former slave rescue his love from an evil plantation owner in Django Unchained. The Hateful Eight’s Major Marquis Warren enrages a feeble old man into taking up a gun and getting himself killed, justifying his homicide. It may not always be central to the main narrative, but at some point, a story someone told will have a noticeable impact.

Characters that can spin an intriguing yarn often have an advantage over those that can’t or don’t, and sometimes enjoy the uncanny ability to bend the rest of the movie to their will. At least, as long as people believe them. Django’s Dr. King Schultz is the most obvious example, able to waltz into town and shoot the sheriff and then get the marshal to pay him for it. Towards the end of the film we see that Django has learned from his example when he is able to convince his captors to release him and give him a weapon that he uses to kill them all. Throughout True Romance, Clarence so readily persuades other characters to work with him that you think he might be reading from the script. In Death Proof, Stuntman Mike gets away with vehicular homicide because he’s able to spin the details so it looks like another tragic accident with young drunk drivers.

The opposite is also true: characters that won’t or don’t tell stories can have it pretty rough. Despite being described as the toughest guy in the room throughout The Hateful Eight, John Ruth is ultimately done in by deceit, killed by a dirty trick. Storytelling is a vital skill in a Tarantino movie, as likely to save your life as dexterity with a pistol or a samurai sword.

This theme is most prevalent in Tarantino’s first and last films, their many similarities making them the perfect bookends for a decades-long treatise on the power of story. Both Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight strand their casts in an extremely stressful high stakes situation where life and death literally hang on one’s ability to tell a convincing story. Although there is gunplay, the main weapons utilized in both films are verbal. In the former, a bunch of hired guns debate which one of them might be the rat that set them up, but it’s not just the undercover cop who needs a good story—the criminals must also convince each other that they weren’t in on it, lest they all turn on each other. The characters in Dogs are all trying to tell the same story: “It wasn’t me.” While confusing at first, the list of possible suspects is whittled down quickly as more information becomes available. If Joe Cabot, the only one who knows all of the other crooks, had simply shown up at the beginning of the second act, the movie would’ve been an hour shorter. A similar setup develops in the latter film, but with an interesting twist—all the criminals in Minnie’s Haberdashery need John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren to believe they are average citizens so they can free Daisy without risking a fight against two notoriously badass gunslingers.

From there, Tarantino expounds and elaborates upon the theme presented in his first film. But in Eight, things get a little more complicated. First, Ruth and West can’t be sure there is only one enemy among the Haberdashery’s guests. Second, each character has their own tale to tell, with varying degrees of success. For instance, Oswaldo Mobray introduces himself as a fellow figure of law and order and is immediately above suspicion. He’s very convincing because he tells Ruth something he wants to hear. But when Joe Gauge starts talking about going home to spend Christmas with his mother, everyone in the Haberdashery and the viewing audience knows he’s lying (props to Michael Madsen for an amazing piece of intentionally bad acting there).

Major Marquis Warren is the heavyweight raconteur. Not only does he have a fake letter from Abraham Lincoln that he wears like armor against white people, but he’s also the first to figure that something isn’t right because he knows the true story of Minnie’s Habadashery and is able to spot the incongruous details, much like the Nazi officer in the tavern. Unfortunately, as much as he knew, it wasn’t enough, and its one of the details he missed that ends up killing him.

Then there’s John Ruth—a man without subtlety, incapable of subterfuge. Upon entering, he immediately declares who he is and what he’s about before inviting any challengers to come at him directly. Of course, no one takes him up on the offer, leaving him in the dark. Being the only known quantity in the room puts Ruth at a distinct disadvantage. The man never met a problem that couldn’t be solved with intimidation and violence, and when finally confronted with one that can’t, he’s at a loss. While Warren converses with the other guests and tries to draw information from them, Ruth blusters ineffectually until his enemies find a sneaky way to dispatch him.

Oddly, the character most similar to Ruth is his prisoner, Daisy Domergue. Though she's called every variation on “lying bitch” in the English language, Domergue is actually quite honest. She doesn’t make nice with West, keeps insulting Ruth even when he beats her, and even tells all assembled that she’s in cahoots with the other guests to kill them in their sleep. When she finally does try to lie in the end, her story is so desperate and unbelievable that her captors just laugh.

While all filmmakers are storytellers, few weave their reverence for the craft into the stories themselves so well. Unlike many meta fictional works, these movies never explicitly declare their analysis. The power of a good story is presented with an abundance of evidence rather than direct discussion, providing an extra layer to explore beneath the bloody, bullet-riddled surface. So, if you should ever find yourself in a Tarantino movie, don't worry about finding a gun or a knife. Start coming up with an entertaining story to enthrall and influence any adversaries you may encounter. In Tarantino’s world, words are often mightier than bullets.

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Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel February 12, 2016 - 11:39am

Fan-***-tastic article!

Allen Pryor's picture
Allen Pryor February 13, 2016 - 10:17am

Samuel L. Jackson's character's name in the The Hateful Eight was not Major Mark West, the character's name was Major Marquis Warren.

Allen Pryor's picture
Allen Pryor February 13, 2016 - 10:17am

Samuel L. Jackson's character's name in the The Hateful Eight was not Major Mark West, the character's name was Major Marquis Warren.

Jon Beach's picture
Jon Beach February 13, 2016 - 2:34pm

The Bride doesn't tell Hattori Hanzo her story when they meet. The mention of Bill's name convinces Hanzo to make the sword because of the untold history between the two.

docawesome's picture
docawesome from Dallas is reading Texas by James Michener February 15, 2016 - 5:16am

The Bride manages to imply most of her story with vague dialogue and meaningful pauses. Hanzo's unspoken history fills in the blanks, but the story of a wronged woman hunting down Bill for vengeance is enough to convince him to break his vow. 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago February 18, 2016 - 11:04am

It's all about the story. Fine article.

MannixMarauders's picture
MannixMarauders April 5, 2016 - 2:07am

John Ruth calls Samuel L Jackson Major Mark Warren, but once they come upon Chris Mannix, Mannix refers to Warren as West at the beginning of their meeting, as does Daisy. This confused me throughout the movie. He does later refer to him as Warren, I figured this must have been a Tarantino Easter egg, but who knows.