January 16, 2013
“Django Unchained’’ is worth the price of admission. Normally, I find Tarantino’s style very cloying, but in this film he is in top form. If I had to sum up the plot, I’d start with calling it a revenge fairy tale set in the antebellum south. Sorry Tarantino, but the love of Django for Broomhilda does not make this blood-drenched film a love story. This film stirred up a lot of thoughts that have taken me a while to distill down. Two ideas have taken root: Django is a monster and this film at times condemns and at times glorifies violence, depending on the victims or rather the killer. While the sheer brutality is cringe-inducing and causes a knee-jerk response that this film cannot be glorifying violence, it is at times. And while Django is likened to the heroic Siegfried of legend, he is a monster or at the very least does monstrous deeds. (I’ll be discussing the whole plot, but you can’t spoil a work of art so read on anyway.)
Let’s start with Django’s humanity. “Humanity’’ is questioned throughout this film as slaves are dehumanized and frequently referred to as property by their masters, and Dr. King Shulz sees his bounties as paydays. Django starts off being brutalized as a slave and finishes brutalizing as a monster. While the slave is merely perceived to be inhuman, a monster is truly inhuman. When we first meet Django, Tarantino makes sure that we see the scars crisscrossing his back. If it weren’t for Dr. King Shulz, Django’s life would be that of any other slave, perceived as inhuman but actually wholly human. Shulz acts as Mephistopheles and leads Django from being merely perceived as inhuman to actually being inhuman.
Django’s embraces his transformation, gleefully acknowledging the tar-baby principle, that to fight a corrupt system is to become corrupted, or as he puts it one must “get dirty’’. And Shulz is there to show him how to get dirty by always killing the bounty. Shulz begins this corruption by entreating Django into the bounty hunting business, which in Schulz’s words is like slave trading in that both are “cash for flesh’’ businesses. At first, Django merely condones the killing by Shulz. But Django starts to get dirty when he recognizes the Brittle brothers about to whip a slave girls just as they whipped his wife. He kills one to save her from harm. That force is justifiable, but what is unjustifiable is the enjoyment Django has whipping the disarmed and fallen brother. Shulz and him cap that triple murder off with a mass murder of KKK members via dynamite. Again, was this necessary? Was Django’s sniping of the plantation owner necessary? The right choices here are murky at best.
Django likes the murk. He sadistically states that he loves killing white people for money. The one time he balks is when Shulz tells him to kill a father in front of his son. Shulz goads him into it saying that the father should never have committed stage coach robbery if he wanted to be a farmer. For me, this is a sad message that redemption is impossible in Tarantino’s world. Django does take the shot, and with that he further dirties himself. His transformation is completed when he escapes from the Aussie slavers. Usually, washing one’s self in water is a purifying act, but when Django dumps the water on himself he is consecrating himself to the dirtiest of tasks. To exact his revenge on Candie Land, he will become as monstrous as Calvin Candie.
When the funeral party enters the Big House, he greets them wearing Calvin Candie’s clothes. Candie was a monster who placed no value on human life and had a borderline incestuous relationship with his sister. That Django would wear his clothes and smoke his clove cigarettes as he gleefully maims and murders shows just how despicable Django has become. Wisely, he has Hildie wait outside. If she could see how much he enjoyed causing pain, she wouldn’t giggle at his caracoles. As it is, she smiles, and the two happily ride off. Happily ever after of course in this fairy tale land. But in this world without redemption is there a chance that Django can stop being a monster? Can you ever do something so inhumane without permanently compromising your humanity?
The second idea that has really bothered me is Tarantino’s use of violence in the film. I’m bothered by the realistic violence being mixed with cartoonish violence. Notably the victims of the realistic violence are always slaves, while it is the slavers who are cartoonishly murdered. We see brutal scenes that force you to watch through your fingers. A slave fed to the dogs. A man screaming with gouged-out eyes. We see violence designed to make you laugh. A man blown away by dynamite. A man repeatedly being shot in the knee by his comrades.
Tarantino has stated in interviews that this film in no way glorifies violence, but this isn’t true. The penultimate confrontation of Django trying to shoot his way out of Candie Land is like a rock concert. The music kicks in. The star struts his stuff and strums out a rhythm of bullets. Instead of confetti cannons, there are blood squibs. And just like after a concert, everything is a mess. To emphasize, Tarantino literally paints the white walls red with blood and through camera placement and slowing the footage allows us to enjoy the geysers of blood spurting from corpses. He even injects some levity through friendly fire.
But the final confrontation is the most disturbing because it strives to be the most palatable. Django has sunk to the level of Calvin Candie, and now Django revels in sadism as he enjoys toying with his prey. Shooting a man in each of his limbs. Emasculating him. Kneecapping Steven. Twice. To make this the worst, you emphasize with Django throughout. While I was glad to see him triumph, the inhumane manner in which he exacted his revenge makes me doubt that he can recover his humanity. And so rather than giving us a film showing a slave’s heroic journey, Tarantino has led us on a journey of glorified violence to man at his most inhuman.