Surveying the South with Shotguns and Spite
There is a moment in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, brilliantly pulse-pounding film Django Unchained in which a slave gets mauled and torn to death by dogs. It’s a haunting image that permeates throughout the rest of the film and ultimately impacts the presumptuously bloody denouement. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, an ex-slave, watches the atrocity in shame under the guise of a black slave owner. He whips out his sunglasses, but even in his confident character, he shakes and twitches them onto his nose ridge. We often give credit, sometimes too much, to Tarantino for his riveting maximalist displays of violence and gore, but often too little for the subtleties like this that color his films.
It’s this inhumane action that also twists the nerves of Django’s German bounty hunter partner (Christoph Waltz), which begins to force existential questioning of his own line of work and the boundaries of American slavery- when too far becomes too far. For Tarrantino, that seems to be his own moral pondering, cavalierly pushing lines of history and fantasy like in his last installment Inglorious Basterds, retelling the story of the Holocaust with a demonstratively different ending, reconciling past actions through filmic catharsis. His films’ moral ambiguities are rarely centric to the plot, but relate to our own sensibilities in witnessing extreme reversals of history. There is no doubt the Nazis are the bad guys, but when does the Basterds’ dismembering of bodies turn from justice to a similar sadism?
This is an age-old question that perpetuates in Tarantino films because of his thematic, revenge-filled stories, evidenced most profoundly in Kill Bill. Revenge can be seen as an ephemeral motive, a driving force that exhausts mental and physical capabilities. When achieved however, the temporal victory is satisfying, the hollow moments after unfulfilling- the dead are dead, no matter who else dies. But instead of paying death for death, Django still has a life in his grasp, a woman to his name, and a future after righteous punishment. It’s this breathing force that makes payback in this film more than just fleeting pleasure.
Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz rescues Django early on from the chain gang of two slave masters in 1858 Texas in signature explosive fashion. Django is the slave able to identify three men Schultz needs for one of his many bounties and they abruptly depart, treading the vast south in preposterous form. The ex-slave however turns out to be much more than just a useful guide, acquiring Schultz’s witty confidence as well as his pistol precision. He handles a gun so well they become bounty-hunting partners. The deal of course hinges on the fact that they will track down Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerri Washington), sold away and separated from him years ago, now residing in a southern plantation.
Their travels, arduous at times (its runtime is over two and a half hours), but nonetheless vicious, are necessary precursors to their final resting point, physical and psychological training for Django’s tunnel vision motive. They find Broomhilda’s residence under the name of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notorious landowner whose plantations deem the name “Candyland.” It’s this man who inflicts the dogs on that helpless slave, someone who probably views blacks and dogs as similar creatures of savagery, evidenced in his proud practice of Mandingo fighting (An unhistorical wrestle-to-the-death event). DiCaprio plays with flare and flamboyance in between his candid dealings, the tactful guise above his venomous pursuit of power.
In uncharacteristic territory is Candie’s head servant Stephen, an Uncle Tom played by Samuel L. Jackson. He, dedicated to his master, shows ultimate skepticism of Django and Mr. Schultz who put up the false desire of acquiring a fighter in the hopes to receive Broomhilda as well. Stephen’s overt outrage however primarily lies in Django’s similar skin color as he pretends to be a slave-owner. Contempt towards Django is also displayed by Candie’s other enslaved chain gang, servants subordinate to a man of their own race.
These initial opinions live in a temporary ignorance to his real identity but still comment largely on a nation still healing from racial divides. Racial rhetoric still exists today, evidenced last week on an ESPN debate regarding Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Tarantino may treat his subjects with bloody pomp and circumstance that escalate to pulpy heights, but Django Unchained is a brutally honest depiction of slavery and its continuous resonation.
But it is also necessarily comical. Tarantino likes to deconstruct the often mythical and feared, exposing the humanity and
ordinary (the often stupidity) of a cult’s self-aggrandized stature. In this case, we diverge to a Klan meeting where ludicrous arguments break out over the visibility beneath their white masks. It’s a rare cameo for Jonah Hill and Don Johnson, and even rarer portrait of men so feared and yet so demonstrably degraded. The director’s own cameo comes later with an Australian accent, which provides more that just the initial chuckle.
Other amusement comes from the filmmaker’s song selections that filter in absurdly and naturally all together. Tarantino has said that he envisions scenes after hearing a song, not vice versa, which distinguishes his ability to create highly memorable movie moments with ironic melodies and lyrics. Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ from Reservoir Dogs fits this category nicely, a twisted and dazzling blend of folky singing and ear-biting torture.
Django Unchained in total is an eclectic mixture of Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western, and so accordingly utilizes songs from both genres, whip cracking whistles and gangster rap rhymes blending not as smoothly as this melding of genres. But in this regard, we have a culturally diverse fusion of styles many would disregard as pliable. Throw Mr. Schwartz and Broomhilda’s German tongue into the melting pot and somehow the convergence works.
But universal themes and meaty storytelling are hardly victims to language barriers and cultural walls. Revenge as a moral equator and general theme transcends any narrative obstacles. Why can True Grit get remade and bloom again as can the good and evil of Bond and summer superheroes? Simplistically, these stories work anywhere, in the dark corners of LA, a Nazi-filled movie theater, or a southern slave-master’s crystal mansion.
The film will receive its flak about its historical inaccuracies and possible degrading moral worth, but this is an experience in film viewing that tingles both mind and body. The violence, the blood, the bullets don’t prove to be gratuitous feats of filmmaking. They are somewhat indulgent yes, but, more so, symbolic rewritings of history that display disgust for America’s past during a still disgruntled present.