The Purpose of Violent Images in Film

© Copyright 2018 Alessia Savino, Ryerson University



Violence in media has become more and more prevalent in daily media as the years go by. It shows itself in our video games, social media, tv and movies. Some have become so used to the sight of these images that they have become desensitized to the sight of violence. For others the sight of violence is something gory and traumatic. Whatever the effect that violence has on its viewers, there are reasons why film makers incorporate them into their film. Violence and sex sell tickets because people want to see things that they would not be privy to in real life. The second reason violence is incorporated into film is to make viewers have a reaction and to make them feel some way about they are viewing or for the purposes of “meaning making” (Bartsch and Mares 957). This ties into the final reason that film makers incorporate violence into their film which is to justify and test our beliefs and values. If the violence makes us feel something like reason two states, then it will work further to test our beliefs and values. Therefore, we will look at the reason that film makers incorporate extreme violence in films and how they intend for it to be received by their audience. More specifically we will look at these reasons through the lens of the film Red Sparrow.

Violence Sells

One of the main reasons why film makers choose to create violent content in their movies is because violence, just like sex, sells. This is found to be true especially in PG 13 movies as PG 13 movies allow for the largest range of audience for a mature content film. This is primarily due to a new phenomenon of film rating called ratings creep. Suddenly adult content, mainly violence and sex, are creeping into movies that would have otherwise been R rated (Barranco et al 81). The purpose of this is that PG 13 movies, as previously mentioned, receive the most views because they are inclusive to the most amount of people where as rated R movies exclude all people 18 and younger. By creeping adult content into PG 13 movies that sell to a wider audience, film makers are able to sell more tickets to their movie and in turn earn more money.

In the case of the film, Red Sparrow, the movie received a well warranted rated R for its extreme violent scenes of torture, murder, and rape. In fact, the title of the Forbes magazine review for the movie is, “Jennifer Lawrence’s Refreshingly Adult ‘Red Sparrow’ Offers Lots of Sex and Violnce.” Although ratings creep did not occur in this film the theory that sex and violence sell greatly applies to the promotion of this film. As seen in the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, the major scenes of rape, torture, murder, and sex are being shown while a voice over of characters lines are played. Bartsch and Mares found that movie trailers exaggerated the level of violence within the movies being previewed, presumably because the creators believed that doing so would enhance the film’s appeal (Barstch and Mares 957). The trailer is the most important part of promoting a film. If the trailer does not draw people in, then no one will want to watch the movie. The trailer is what sets the tone for the rest of the film and if film makers do not pick the correct visuals to display to the audience then the movie will not be as successful. Therefore, as a film producer it is important to show their best, and gory action filled scenes and visuals in their trailer in order to entice their audience.


Violence to Invoke Feeling

Another theory as to why people watch movies and visuals with such extreme violence is not for the violence per say but for the feelings it provides to viewers. Bartsch and Mares found that people do not actually enjoy seeing bloodshed or watching someone be beaten but rather they enjoy the feelings that come with it such as suspense and thrill (Barstch and Mares 956).  They value how the scenes make them feel rather than what they are actually seeing. Various examples of this can be seen in Red Sparrow. The film displays a wide variety of violent scenes. Multiple violent rape scenes, torture scenes, murders, beatings, and mutilated corpses are among the many scenes shown in the film. Most people do not enjoy watching a scene of a woman being raped or watching a man being strangled to death, but they watch it anyway because of how it makes them feel. Bartsh and Mares theorize “that individuals may choose to watch violent, gory material if they anticipate that the depiction is a meaningful and valuable reflection of reality. While viewers might not enjoy watching a film about domestic abuse or the cruelties of war, they might nonetheless appreciate a serious and insightful reflection of these issues that acknowledges the human cost fully rather than eliding the violence” (Bartsch and Mares 957). Therefore, they mean that if the violence looks real even though it may be shocking and gory it makes them understand the magnitude of what this would be like in real life.

The set of knives used to skin a man alive, in Red Sparrow.

For example, in Red Sparrow there is a scene (see above photo) where a set of various torture knives are laid out and a man is about to be tortured for information. Then a skin peeler used for skin graft procedures is taken out and they begin peeling layers of the man’s skin. While some movies would show this scene from a distance so that the audience could just see the motion of skin being peeled but could not actually see the skin coming off the body Red Sparrow takes this to new and gory heights. Instead they show a close-up angle of the skin actually being peeled off of his body multiple times. This tactic instills a greater amount of shock and feelings into the viewer, which is its purpose while the angle of the camera in this scene drives this feeling home. However, the viewer does not enjoy seeing skin peeled off. They enjoy the feeling that they get from seeing it happen. In fact, in the theatre people kept looking away from this scene but were then peeking through their fingers, or they would close their eyes but then a few seconds later would start watching again. This is because even though the visual that they are seeing is so shocking and gory, they still cannot help but watch it because of the thrill and the adrenaline that they feel from watching it.


Dominika, the protagonist of Red Sparrow, just before she is attacked and almost raped .

Another reason that violent and sexual images are used in films is because of the curiosity that people feel toward these subjects. For example, people do not regularly see someone getting raped, or murdered, or beat up. While these are horrible events the human brain cannot help but be curious about how and why these events occur. As Barstch and Mares discuss, “there are intense emotions and arousal, such as voyeurism and curiosity about taboo actions” (Bartsch and Mares 958). For some viewers seeing violent or sexual images is like eating the forbidden fruit. They want a taste of what it is like to be able to see content that they would not have seen otherwise.

Furthermore, violence can also be used to invoke other feelings like a sense of gratification for example. Viewers feel gratification when they see violent behaviour directed towards a villainous character, or when a heroic character gets rewarded (Bartsch and Mares 958). This can also be looked at through the lens of Red Sparrow. After so much violence and murder is inflicted by the main characters uncle throughout the entire film viewers finally get to see him experience what he deserves when the tables turn on him and he is the one shot and killed at the hands of his niece and the main character, and the one person her inflicted the most pain and suffering on. It is in this scene that readers get their gratification from watching the villain die. If the violence was turned around the other way the gratification received from the scene by the audience would be less because they would not feel that the character was that deserving of it.

Violence is not just used to make viewers feel gratification and satisfaction but can also be used for various other feelings depending on the story line. For example, the goals of some movies or films is to make you shocked or recoil or jump back. For others it is to make you feel suspense, nervous, or even sick. Whatever, the violent visuals being shown, the purpose of it to invoke feelings, is still the same.

Violence to Invoke Beliefs or Values

The final reason that film makers use extreme violence in films ties into the need to invoke feelings. People have a set of beliefs and values in life that help guide them. One of those beliefs and values is life and the life of others. For the most part people want to ensure that others are okay. In a film when people see characters experiencing extreme violence it reminds them of what their morals and values are. It reminds them that if it were not for their morals and values then they would not feel the way they do about another individual being hurt. The reason this ties into violence invoking feelings is because without invoking feelings one cannot invoke morals.

We can see this again in Red Sparrow because of the politics in the film. In the movie, the Americans are working against the Russian politics and mobsters. The Americans however, follow protocol and do not engage in violence unless necessary while the Russian mob is the one that commits the murders and the torture. It is in these scenes that we can look at our beliefs and values and know that the way the people are being treated in the movie is not right. Why do we know that this is not right? Because of the beliefs and morals that we carry with us. Bartsch and Mares theorize that this is because “the need for meaning-making is aroused by negative events that violate an individual’s belief in the world as a just place where bad things do not happen to good people (including the self)” (Bartsch and Mares 960). Viewers like to think of the world as a just place where people are not punished for no reason. Therefore, when scenes like the ones above are mentioned the violence triggers this sense of our knowing right from wrong and what is just and what is not.


Violence is used in films and the media for many reasons. However, gory and heinous the images we see maybe they serve a purpose and that is why they are present in so many movies. The reasons for violence being used all go hand in hand with one another. Violence sells tickets and entices viewers, and the reason that viewers are enticed and entertained by these images is because of how the images make them feel. If the images did not make them feel a certain way then they would not decide to purchase tickets to the film and the films would not make money otherwise. Without these feelings then we would not be able to relate the violence to our beliefs and values. Violent images in the media serve a purpose because of what they invoke in their viewers. This is the job of the visuals that media present to us. The purpose is for the visual to make us feel or think about something, otherwise there would be no reason for us to see it. The film Red Sparrow was the perfect example of a film the invokes violence for the purposes of feeling because without all of its violence and gore the film would not have been the same and would be able to give impact that it did.

Works Cited

Barranco, Raymond E., et al. “Violence at the Box Office: Considering Ratings, Ticket Sales, and Content of Movies.” Sage Journals, vol. 44, no. 1, 26 Nov. 2015, pp. 77–95.

Bartsch , Anne, and Marie-Louise Mares. “Making Sense of Violence: Perceived Meaningfulness as a Predictor of Audience Interest in Violent Media Content.” Journal of Communitcation, vol. 64, no. 5, 9 Sept. 2014, pp. 956–976.

Mendelson, Scott. “Review: Jennifer Lawrence’s Refreshingly Adult ‘Red Sparrow’ Offers Lots Of Sex And Violence.” Forbes Magazine, 26 Feb. 2018.

Stewart, Sara. “Jennifer Laurence Flounders in Atrocious ‘Red Sparrow.’” New York Post, 27 Feb. 2018.

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