by James Hansen
Over the past few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with critics, pundits, and politicians considering the moral, ethical, and political implications in regard to the representation of violence – particularly torture – in Kathryn Bigelow’s highly acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty. Interest in the movie has grown in large part because of these discussions, almost making an actual analysis of the film itself a moot point. (I’ll still have something to say about Zero Dark Thirty once it opens locally in Columbus.) Not garnering the same amount of controversy prior to its release – aside from a breif dustup when director Spike Lee commented that he will not be seeing the film – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Recalling both films now, I have to admit the outrage(ous) [responses] to the films feel somewhat backward. What I want to offer here is a bit polemical as to the reactions each film has received (again, leaving a direct critique of ZD30 for later) which stand as indicative of the relative merits of each film. That is, if Zero Dark Thirty has been, at the very least, a “conversation starter,” a lack of furor over Django Unchained reveals an utter lack of seriousness, the complete absence of even a veiled attempt at critical dialogue, in Tarantino’s blaxploitation-slavery-revenge epic.
All the same, Django Unchained starts very well. Dr. King Schultz (a terrific Christoph Waltz) finds Django (Jamie Foxx) walking along a trail in shackles with other slaves who are to be up for auction. Schultz offers to free Django in exchange for his help in a bounty hunting mission. If Django can help Schultz kill the Brittle Boys, he will be free to go find his wife (Kerry Washington) who he learns has been sold to the Candie plantation where male slaves fight for sport and female slaves are forced into prostitution. Tarantino is at his best with the Schultz character, talking his way in, around, and out of trouble as a bounty hunter, using official documentation and language to defend his murderous actions. Foxx is more contained, slowly opening up from reserved slave to almost flamboyant freed man. Immediately a good shot with a gun, Tarantino nevertheless gives us a montage of Django learning to shoot (that is, learning to be free) before trotting along with Schultz on several bounty hunting missions. The air is a bit lighter with all of this and Tarantino’s postmodern playfulness propels the narrative for an hour or so until Schultz and Django finally come across the Brittle Boys.
Despite Django’s recent freedom, he immediately begins to take on the attitude of someone familiar with the position of power, even moreso than Schultz who open renounces slavery as cruel and inhumane. Django, taking revenge on the Brittles, whips them as they once did him. Throughout the rest of the film, Tarantino uses this literal reversal of violence – the freed slave now in control of the “master” – to the point of excess. With violence now pumping through the veins of all the characters, Schultz and Django finally come upon Candie (the overly cartoonship Leonardo DiCaprio). Here, on their way to Candyland, Django Unchained takes on a more serious tone with characters analyzing slavery more openly in some surprising ways. As a means of appeasing Candie, Django often mocks the other slaves and refuses to help some in dire situations, even when Schultz attempts to intervene. This helps Tarantino set up more gamesmanship between Candie and Django, but unfortunately places our hero in a similar, individualistic mindset as Candie. Django isn’t concerned with slavery at large and neither is the film. Instead, Django is around to save his girl – no more, no less.
Once on the Candyland plantation, all of Tarantino’s indulgences come to the fore, as the film gets increasingly messy, less convincing, and simultaneously more and more troubling. This begins and ends with the resident Uncle Tom, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is so loyal to the monstrous Candie that he continually chides Candie for treating Django as a free man. Here, an extended dialogue sequence at the dinner table could remind us of the terrific sequence in Inglourious Basterds, but here there is little spark, DiCaprio’s performance almost too finely tuned for any genuine responses or surprises. The link made, of course, is one between slavery and capitalism, the black body as a form of trade and exchange, but this too feels only in service of leading to an oncoming blood bath. And then another blood bath. And then another. Indeed, Django Unchained begins to feel endless as the plantation is gleefully shot up and blown to bits when the deal between Candie and Schultz inevitably falls apart. As part of the plantation, everyone has been complicit and, thus, everyone must pay. Tarantino clearly wants this to operate as the main set piece, the exciting moment the whole film has been turning towards, and, to some extent, it is. Nonetheless, the violence becomes redundant, so excessive it fails to operate as excess, and instead a baffling indulgence of an out of control director who doesn’t know when to stop.
More indulgent than ever before, Tarantino is much more invested in Django Unchained as a hyper-self-aware Tarantino film than he is in using temporal hindsight to anachronistically reshape and question codes of violence from the horrors of history. As such, Django Unchained imbues freedom with violence, wherein freedom is the very thing that allows for violent acts, that allows for senseless killing to be seen as a form of creativity and individuation, not to mention comedy and nihilism. In the end, then, Django Unchained practically celebrates eye-for-an-eye logic. (While Tarantino’s foot fetish is well known, he also has a strange relationship with eyes and the fear of blindness, this being at least the second of his films to feature someone having both their eyes ripped out and leaving them alive to roll around on the floor screaming.) This logic grants violence an eery form of equivalence no matter the forms it takes. Tarantino could use this as a critique of both violence and historical equivalency if he weren’t so damn gleeful about seeing Django blow away everyone white person, friend or foe. Here, Tarantino is particularly attached to suffering as a comedic trope, often having people shot in the knees so they can wallow in the floor during shootouts to be used as undying human shields, screaming and moaning as they are shot over and over again. This is all still a childlike fantasy of playing Cowboys and Indians in a backyard, a fun little game without real action or consequences. Why use history at all then? Why make a movie about race? About slavery? There doesn’t seem to be a clear idea. Django Unchained wants to be pure pop entertainment, slavery revenge fun for the whole family. If that’s the point, then I suppose it works, because, just like at a carnival, I left speechless, exhausted, and wanting to puke.