Django Unraveled: Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Movie

My friend and I walk out of our screening of Django Unchained, not talking at first.

Him: Did you like it?
Me: I think so. Did you?
Him: Yes, but I don’t want to tell anybody that.

That, I think, is the whole point of Django.

 

An illustration: take Samuel L. Jackson as the head house slave.

He’s hilarious. He channels his charisma and wild energy into a witty, petty, sycophantic villain, endlessly fun to watch and even more fun to root against, the perfect foil for Jamie Foxx’s stone-cold hero. He’s loveable and loathsome, stealing every scene he’s in, and even some that he’s not.

And I am a terrible, terrible person for reacting that way.

Such slaves existed. Their owners used them as informants and weapons against others, scarred and abused them to achieve the desired mix of unfeeling pride and instinctive servility. They were tortured men who in turn tortured others, both victims and perpetuators of a brutal system. There is absolutely nothing funny about their history.

But Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious.

And that, I guess, is the whole point of Django.

 

Christoph Waltz is excellent in this film. His Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor is well-earned, even if it’s cheating: he’s the lead character for the first 2 hours of the film. Where I come from (Boston, a city of higher education and rationality), that’s not called a “supporting” role. That’s called starring in a 2-hour movie.

But he can’t be the star, because you can’t have a vengeance movie about American slavery with a white guy as your lead. He can get the ball rolling. He can liberate, train, and equip your black hero. He can take you 90% of the way there. But in the end, he’s got to make a gruesome exit, so that Django can discover his independence, his freedom, his sense of agency, and exact his revenge alone – not as a glorified titular sidekick. This movie simply can’t have a white star.

Though it can, apparently, have a white director.

And that, perhaps, is the whole point of Django.

 

In the scheme of things, Leonardo Dicaprio’s villain really isn’t all that villainous.

Look at the facts. He owns slaves, but he inherited that estate and lifestyle. Sure, he’s got a bloodlust for gladiatorship, but he treats Django civilly. And when he discovers that he’s been deceived, he fumes a bit, but doesn’t kill anybody, and the terms of his blackmail are surprisingly fair.

Even so, when after two hours the film finally devolves into the Tarantino bloodbath we’ve been waiting for, it’s hard to feign surprise. If the heroes had somehow accomplished their mission without massacring the whites – if they had accepted the reasonable extortion – I would have felt let down. Though it may fly in the face of logic, Leo had to die.

But why?

What spells his doom, in Django’s moral universe, isn’t that he buys and sells human beings. It’s that he expects to shake hands at the end. His biggest sin – his fatal sin – is that he’s too damn smug about the whole thing. He doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to feel guilty, or at least ambivalent. And that is why the white man must die.

Is that the whole point of Django?

 

I’m not exactly a Quentin Tarantino connoisseur. I’ve seen Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, and… that’s it. The man makes a smart film, but the question is, why make this particular film?

Tarantino’s name is almost synonymous with over-the-top violence. At times it’s funny, cartoonish – a single shotgun blast sending a body zipping into the next room. At times it’s gross, unreal – fountains of blood spurting every which way. At times it’s excruciating – a slave torn limb from limb by dogs. And at times, I don’t know what it is – a man in the middle of the crossfire, his leg repeatedly torn apart by bullets, a scene too silly to be chilling and too ugly to be funny. It’s just… violent.

Watching Django, you want to think there’s a design to it all. Tarantino must have a plan. He’s too smart not to. But look closer, and you’ll find nothing holding Django together. It unravels.

Eventually you begin to wonder whether the violence came first, and the history second. Maybe Tarantino just wanted to pour his usual cocktail of gore and comedy, nothing more; to achieve a primal reaction, animalistic cheer and laughter at another’s pain, without any political agenda or historical commentary, except as an afterthought. Maybe he knew that to achieve that effect – to get his audiences laughing like so many hyenas – he needed them to dehumanize the victim. And who better to dehumanize than the dehumanizers themselves? Maybe, like too many of us, he just craved violence, and thought, “Hey, I bet violence against slaveholders will go down easy.”

Django made me laugh, squirm, and think. But was I supposed to think? Or just laugh and squirm? Does Tarantino lull us into dehumanizing the villains in order to discomfort us, to awaken us to the sin of dehumanization – or just to provide some thrills and chuckles?

A frightening thought: Does Django have a point?

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2 thoughts on “Django Unraveled: Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Movie

  1. I think one key to the film was the comparison between bounty hunting and slavery: that both are flesh-for-cash businesses. I heard one review describe Waltz’s character as amoral, but Waltz’s persistent argument to Fox that they were acting as agents of the state and killing bad people offers some resistance to that argument (though Waltz’s definition of ‘bad’ simply means ‘broke the law’. which obviously doesn’t cover cases like Di Caprio).

    Tarantino is really obsessed with the idea of vengeance: whether one is entitled to it, or satisfied by it, or even obligated to seek it (the answers are always yes, yes, and yes). This movie actually felt more morally developed than Kill Bill (another revenge movie with elements a tutelage theme). But Kill Bill was so fantastic precisely because it was truly amoral, unlike Django. It really does seem like the best and worst parts of Django come from the fact that, I think, it really is wrestling somewhat with morality (though, at the end of the day, not doing anything too groundbreaking with it).

    Also, the movie felt slow in parts. Which, I guess, is required by the genre he’s working in. Also, It was certainly Tarantino’s most main stream film, which is interesting in its own ways.

    • Yeah, genre seems like the key issue here. Apparently he described his intention as making a race issue film that was actually just a genre film. On that level I think he succeeded.

      I didn’t actually think about the bounty hunting/slave trafficking comparison, but it seems quite clear now that you say it.

      It’s funny, I thought the film presented Waltz’s character not as amoral, but as a definite good guy – coldblooded and calculating, maybe, but ethical, and fundamentally on the right side.

      The key to the film seems to be Waltz’s final scene. It’s the turning point in the plot; it’s the climax of those themes of vengeance you nicely laid out; and it seems to answer, one way or the other, the question of whether Waltz’s character is moral or amoral. (I’m pretty sure the answer is there, I just don’t know which one it is.)

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