Violence was once explained to me as an artistic choice. Although you can put anything you want in your movie or book or whatever, it makes a statement about you when you let sex or violence come to represent the whole piece. This is especially true in cases where violence is allowed to compensate for a plot, to resolve an issue you can’t find a way out of, or to express emotion when words seem to fail. Like the dog in the movie Up, a cinema audience can be distracted (for a while) from almost anything by a nicely-choreographed spot of the old red, red krovvy, as the progenitor of such things put it.

This piece examines three films for which violence seems to act as a major artistic decision. In Antichrist, Kick Ass and Centurion, all of which I saw within a recent week, violence provides a focus–in some cases an entire language–for whatever it is the director wants to say. (Note: At this point I should note that a fourth film failed to make the cut for this piece; Piranha 3D expresses itself exclusively though violence and gore so it would be unfair to compare it to films which are at least attempting to do something more, even if they fail. Piranha would win hands down).

Let’s begin with Centurion, which is about a Roman soldier who finds himself behind enemy lines in Britain. Of the three it uses violence in the most integral way because the major theme of the film is how violent a place Roman Britain was. Directed as it is by Neil Marshall, the bloke who brought us Dog Soldiers and The Descent (both immensely superior to this one) we can expect some gory closeups, but nothing can prepare you for quite the number of slit throats in this thing. It’s not safe to be a carotid artery in this film. Barfights, betrayals, battles and barneys of all descriptions all end in tears (that’s not tears as in Smokey Robinson’s clown but as in what you do to the fabric of the space/time continuum in a Star Trek spinoff). It’s nauseating, literally visceral stuff, the return on which does not diminish with familiarity. These objects are not so familiar that mothers will but smile, because every close-up garrotting is done in a slightly distinctive way, the director coming up with many entertaining variations on the theme of getting one’s throat cut. It’s not eloquent but neither was the Roman empire’s treatment of the barbarians in its outlying territories where, as I understand it, there wasn’t a huge amount of talking.

The titular centurion, played by Michael Fassbender, whose men are all slaughtered in an ambush, joins the ranks of a hard-living, lead-from-the-front kind of bloke who you know is going to die heroically while taking a good half dozen of them with him. The sort of bloke who refuses to let you carry him when he gets injured, instead insisting that you give him a few clips and a brace of hand grenades so he can buy you a bit of time. No hand grenades here, of course; you’ll settle, of course, for something metal and pointy. Dominic West does the honours here, dying in an appropriately theatrical manner.

So our hero finds that his battalion has been betrayed by a particularly nubile girl who has had her tongue cut out and who therefore communicates exclusively through the medium of ass whooping. When he gets to her there’ll be a cool battle and he’ll win, but you’ll have lost interest in plotting well before that. (The standoff between the two doesn’t even end up as the film’s climax, as it happens, but that won’t spoil things for you). This is a violent film and one which doesn’t really protest itself as anything other: it’s accurate to Roman times and these were violent times. I’m not saying there was too much swordplay, but I had lockjaw by the end of it. It could use a plot a little less predictable; I’d have settled for a plot.

Kick Ass, on the other fist, is a teen angst piece where a young man (Aaron Johnston, who does very well in the role) feels emasculated by bullies and decides to go into battle. The problem is that he’s no good at it yet becomes famous overnight via YouTube. Zeitgeisty, eh? There is, however, a much more efficient superhero at work, a little girl who calls herself Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz, fantastic). She’s trained by her father, played by the terminally-shite Nicholas Cage, as part of some vengeance thing to do with her dead mother and his having been screwed over by the corrupt police force. Why the dad doesn’t do the ass kicking himself and instead exposes his little girl to exceedingly dangerous situations (not least weapons training which involves him shooting the child at point blank range to get her used to wearing Kevlar) is not satisfactorily explained, but my real question is of whether it could ever be. There is clearly an artistic decision here to have the little girl killing people and doing so with relish: her opening superhero line involves her calling out the bad guys as ‘cunts’. Some folks whose opinions I value deplore this abuse of a young actor; I hear language as bad in First Year classes so I’m not too worried, because this is not a satirical look at how we expose young kids to violent video games and revenge/vigilante movies, it’s a calculated gambit to use the shock value of a little kid who can kick your ass. The film abandons the taste war early and then often. After that it’s almost impossible to get annoyed with the violence.

What makes this movie work, rather, is the real life of the central character Dave, who is not able to compete with guys who will stab him or bullies who abuse him, or with the frustration that brings. Hit Girl’s antics are not realistic but Dave’s experience is. Identification with the geeky kids is the point and the subsequent satire on information culture is a well-observed one: without doing much Kick Ass achieves folk hero status and that’s funny. Girls swoon and other geeks emulate him like some sort of nerd Spartacus. It retains its comic book tone and only when the hero is badly injured early in the movie are there major consequences to the otherwise comedic violence. The pay-off, which involves a bazooka, jet pack and a high building, will end one’s quest for realism but any sane individual would have realised that this is silly quite early on. The unease may remain about casting a little girl in such a violent role, but the violence is cartoonish enough for me to assume Ms. Moretz may well have known that it’s not real and escaped untraumatized. Critics spoke out like they did about Leon‘s exploitation of Natalie Portman, but at least in this film the child isn’t shot in soft focus as she drinks milk in closeup. Now that was distasteful. Kick Ass is funny.

Altohugh one scene in Kick Ass is admittedly rather distasteful (a character burning to death) the violence here is used to beef up the escapist nature of the protagonist’s superhero fantasy. She’s everything he can’t be until he steps up. It is pretty dark but the schlock works and is done with a sense of humour which arches an eyebrow in a way Nick Cage’s many facelifts won’t allow anymore.

There is one funny line in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist but it’s a) unintentional and b) uttered by an animatronic fox, so right here you know that this film has problems. Unlike the historic swedging of Centurion or the comic book twirls and nun-chucks of Kick Ass, this film’s violence is an admission of defeat, a tasteless and grotesque degeneration from dialectic to mutilation. It tries to return relationships to their most primal but instead indicts the director’s lack of imagination, wit and insight. Can you tell I hated it? See? And I didn’t have to hit you. I’m not sure Von Trier has the confidence to get his point across this simply. That this film is dedicated to Tarkovsky is rich: good job for Lars dead people can’t sue.

The film opens with a beautifully shot but empty sex scene (featuring a gratuitous penetration shot) all counterpointed by the death of the couple’s child. It’s sad but not as sad as the wasted opportunity which follows. While redolent of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in theme, the couple in Antichrist (Wilem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) lack any sense of pathos or even passion: the two films are the extremes of showing vs. telling. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie make love with guilt, hurt and passion, while in Antichrist the increasingly bizarre and hateful sex scenes resemble two bags of bones grinding while watching Louis Malle’s Damage. Its sub-bestial anger grates and if this is intentional then it speaks volumes against Von Trier’s alleged insight.

In what seems at first to be a reference to Persona but takes on the paranoia (and cod psychology of Hour of the Wolf) Dafoe takes his wife to their remote cabin following the breakdown she suffers, but we rapidly discover his hopeless lack of empathy. She evades his attempts at psychoanalysis and he stages the sort of little role playing bullshit nobody ever likes when management inflicts it on them in work. She asks, at one point, a very telling question, one which I only wish Von Trier had an inkling of the significance of: “Can’t I just be afraid without a definite object”? This is the problem with this mess of a film: Von Trier can’t have the partners simply seethe or bark at each other: there has to be a definite object, something or someone to hurt. Pain can’t be merely insidious, it must be acted upon like revenge in an outdated Elizabethan drama. And sooner or later Von Trier regresses into violence, presumably because it beats having to write these characters decent, believable arcs.

When I say violence I mean silly at first, but then shockingly reductive, misogynistic violence. The wife, who’s been reading all about how hurt women have been categorised through history as witches, conforms to the stereotype and gets medieval on her husband’s ass (or rather penis), via a piece of transference so sophomoric that even her shit analyst of a husband flags as dangerous. So in the third or fourth bit of violent nookie (one really does lose count but it’s just after the talking animatronic fox) she hits him where it hurts. Then things get silly (!) and the plot gets sacrificed at the altar of retarded direction. It’s not even realistic: I’ve never been hit on the pecker with a brick but I’m quite sure the first thing I’d lose would be my stiffy, not to mention my ability to ejaculate blood. I know, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for something but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar… sometimes it’s just a cheroot. ( And for the record: methinks if you ejaculate blood it doesn’t count: you’re just bleeding a great deal. Post-coital spooning is definitely out).

That’s not the least speakable image in the film: that belongs to the self-loathing payback the wife inflicts on herself. No spoiler here but I recommend that scene in Misery with the blocks and mallet for a little relief afterward. Levity aside, it’s a shocking and indefensible piece of sensationalist, woman-hating crap that can’t be made sense of rationally. But, of course, women aren’t rational, are they? Unlike the pseudo-documentary detail of Centurion, or the adolescent wish-fulfillment choppy-socky-stabby of Kick Ass, this is violence as a substitute for dénouement, a sensationalist, exploitative and hateful deus ex machina, the like of which you’d expect from an essay written by a rather dull child who plays too much World of Warcraft and needs to get his hair washed.

Violence has a role to play in moviemaking, as anyone who has seen Scorcese or Kubrick at their best will know. I’d be careful, though, to monitor content according to the dictum of our Illustrious Taoiseach: everything in moderation, including moderation. In each of the cases I’ve looked at there are moments when the film fades into relative insignificance when set against its violent moments, and this hardly complements the story. That’s bad. That said, two of the films use violence creatively in some way, which makes the failure of Antichrist all the more appalling. It really is that bad, gentle reader: be warned.