18 March, 2013Issue 21.5Film & TVNorth AmericaThe Arts

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A History of Violence

Trace Vardsveen

Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino dir.
Django Unchained
Weinstein Company
18th January 2013

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Near the close of what can be best described as the first of three awkwardly-weighted and not-so-clearly demarcated fragments constituting the overall narrative structure of Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic pastiche, Django Unchained (2013), a poignant and pregnant moment emerges which could easily fail to be recognized as such, given the deceptively facetious tone with which the moment is cloaked. Without disclosing too much of the broader implications for the film’s plot, the scene unfolds thus: Django (Jamie Foxx in a searing yet at times inconsistent performance), a slave teetering on the threshold of emancipation, hurriedly navigates his way across a plantation in pursuit of three sadistic overseers known as the Brittle brothers. As he fearlessly approaches the slovenly-dressed Big John Brittle who is brandishing a whip while mumbling passages from the Bible to a youthful female slave about to have her skin split open for breaking some eggs, Django calls out in an attempt to attract his attention. Drawing within whip’s length of Big John, Django stretches out his arm, gun in hand, and to the shock of the swelling audience of slaves, he quips with typical Tarantino wit: “I like the way you die boy”, just after sending a bullet straight through a page of the Bible posted on Big John’s person and into the heartless hollow of his chest. The result: one incapacitated cog in the machine of slavery.

Although this scene is misplaced and ill-developed in the broader context of the film’s plot, it is quite germane to what has arguably emerged as a pervasive and central theme throughout Tarantino’s last four films: Inglorious Basterds, Death Proof, and both volumes of Kill Bill. As with the controversial revisionist history of Inglorious Basterds, the relationship between revenge and justice is manifested in Django Unchained as a response to the wrongs perpetrated by humanity against a particular class of individuals. It is through the principle character of Django that Tarantino most effectively represents the persecuted slaves of America’s past.

Django is most certainly not a typical slave. After being granted his freedom by the beneficent and enlightened Dr King Schultz, (Christoph Waltz in a refreshingly energetic performance) Django sets out on a quest with his emancipator to rescue his wife Broomhilda from servitude. It is prior to commencing his mission, which constitutes the second narrative fragment and the core of the film, that Django’s encounter with Big John occurs. The encounter sets the thematic stage for the film, as Django’s act of violence against Big John is paradigmatic of how the rest of his violent actions can be construed.

On one level, the act is merely a personal instantiation of vengeance: Django is reciprocating and amplifying a wrong Big John inflicted upon Django and Broomhilda when he was their overseer, as disclosed in one of the film’s stylistically divergent flashback sequences. The use of the word “like” by Django while punishing Big John removes his action even further from the realm of justice. If Django were administering justice for the wrong he and Broomhilda have suffered, the punishment exacted should be, in general, proportional to the wrong and Django should not be overcome by a feeling of such pleasure in administering it. Yet he relishes the moment. On a more abstract level, Django’s act can be construed as a manifestation of the anger and frustration of the slave in general towards the slaver. Here, one is presented with the moral problem of whether Django’s act is vengeful or just. It is reasonable to infer that more than a few of the awestruck slaves witnessing Big John’s punishment are having their wrongs at least addressed, if not redressed, by Django. This is the same moral problem that is presented by Tarantino’s other films, and as with those films, Tarantino is silent on the controversial issues he raises.

Anyone even slightly familiar with the sanguinary cinematic works of Tarantino should not be surprised that the director has chosen the Western as the genre within which to examine such a theme. Not only are vengeance and justice thematic engines driving the narratives in many Westerns, but the influence of the likes of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci are manifest in all of Tarantino’s films, from the use of excessive violence to “breakneck” zooms, to the integration of the music of Ennio Marricone. And, to the pleasure or displeasure of Tarantino fans, Django Unchained is no exception, for it effectively operates as his most explicit homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, amongst the most relevant of which are Corbucci’s Django (1966) and its unofficial spin-offs (including Guilio Questi’s Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! (1967)). Tarantino even goes so far as to incorporate Luis Bacalov and Rocky Roberts’ title theme song for Django into Django Unchained‘s title and credit sequence to establish the tone of the film.

Considered on its own, Django Unchained satisfies insofar as it entertains and intellectually stimulates from its opening image of a resurrected Columbia Pictures logo to its final frame. But considered in the broader context of Tarantino’s canon, in particular Inglorious Basterds, the film with which Django Unchained arguably has the most in common, Django Unchained‘s novelty and the effect borne from it are deflated. Although the historical subject matter that each film addresses is sufficiently different to allay any disappointment that might be roused in the ardent Tarantino fan by the similarities between the two, Django Unchained falls short of the achievement delivered by Inglorious Basterds for multiple reasons. The most significant among these is that in Inglorious Basterds, the wrong-doing Nazis are injected with a degree of sophistication which lends the wrongs they inflict a greater sense of tragedy. The punishment exacted against them is thus made all the more complicated. In contrast, most of the villains in Django Unchained—the ordinary slavers—are represented as ignorant, inbred imbeciles that make the backwoodsmen of Deliverance (1972) appear erudite and tame by comparison. The result is that although there is still moral complexity embodied in the wrongdoer’s punishment, it is diminished by Tarantino’s failure to imbue all his characters with the same degree of complexity that he affords his protagonist. Yet despite its problems, Django Unchained is a work that adroitly blends the motifs of a sub-genre with the recurrent themes and style of a director whose signature frequently overwrites traditional history, offering a perspective in which the very notion of justice is redrawn to reflect the wise-cracking, gun-slinging volatility prescribed by Tarantino’s familiar pattern.

Trace Vardsveen read for an MSt in Film Aesthetics at Worcester College, Oxford. He is currently studying for a J.D. at the University of Nebraska.