Critical Dialogue: Django Unchained
By Max Nelson on 1.16.2013
Midway through Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the titular slave-turned-gunslinger puts a bullet through the heart of his former master, who once said he “liked the way he begged” for his wife’s mercy. Django gets the last word: “I like the way you die, boy.”
Django Unchained makes the case that it’s sometimes okay to like the way people die. For 45 agonizing minutes of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, Django and his bounty-hunting partner-in-crime Dr. Schulz (Christoph Waltz) are trapped undercover at a hellish plantation, their host a smooth-talking devil named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They’re posing as slave buyers to rescue Django’s wife from Candie’s clutches—a romantic gesture that demands they witness and even approve a catalogue of stomach-churning abuses. Compromises pile up until Schulz, with one foot already out the door, is asked to make one compromise too many. The resulting cavalcade of violence, scored to Tupac and set in balletic slo-mo, troubles for the same reason it thrills: the sequence invites us unapologetically to delight in the crumpling of slave-owner bodies and the gushing of aristocratic blood. “Tarantino’s violence,” wrote critic Jeffrey Overstreet in a review on Patheos, “does not inspire sober reflection and soul-searching. It inspires a sense of exhilaration.”
Overstreet has spent a career exploring the intersection between his open-minded love of film and his Christian faith; his take on Django is thoughtful, balanced, and deeply conflicted. For Overstreet, the moment Tarantino makes Django’s revenge a source of aesthetic in addition to moral satisfaction, the moment he equates the pleasure we might take from seeing justice done with the thrill we get from a well-executed on-screen shootout, he compromises his position as a disinterested arbiter of right and wrong and instead “exploits the realities [of slavery] in order to stir up support for a violent reckoning”—any violent reckoning, as long as it can be put in slow motion.
Overstreet faulted Tarantino for having shown Candie’s abuses at all (“such imagery isn’t going to do anybody any good”). Here he is, I think, being a little unfair—if any violent subject matter deserves to be not merely suggested, but brought to light, it’s precisely this sort of historically grounded cruelty. In the new Jan/Feb issue of FILM COMMENT, Geoffrey O’Brien argues that Django’s melodramatic torture is “melodrama by necessity, since even all [Tarantino’s] images of brutality and articulations of contempt . . . are insufficient to measure the actual torment out of which the melodrama was constructed.” Filtered though it might be through a century of movie tropes high and low, Django is, O’Brien argues, “a movie about slavery,” fuming with “ghostly rage” over offences past but not forgotten.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker sometimes praises films for reflecting, explicitly or otherwise, on the process of their own creation; at times he demands it of them. For Brody, the question is not whether Tarantino does or doesn’t show Candie’s abuses, but whether or not he understands what it means to show them: “the pornographic element of [Tarantino’s] depiction of violence,” he writes, “is in its moral economy… [he] shows enough of what horrifies him to shock, as much of what excites him to delight.” Brody faults Tarantino not for showing Candie’s abuses outright, but for showing them without the proper measure of disgust—not enough, at least, to spoil his (and our) appetite for the violence to come. He also brings up Pasolini’s Salò, a film that takes its director’s “own cinematic imagination as a subject and sign of crisis.” By contrast, Tarantino implicates himself in the on-screen violence only when it’s safe for him to do so—when he’s “on the right side of history.” Perhaps, Brody suggests, staging and filming an act of violence—whether it’s righteous anger or cruel abuse—is enough to implicate the filmmaker in the (imagined) deed, if only by forcing him or her to observe instead of intervene.
There’s a chance, of course, that Tarantino had all this in mind when he had Dr. Schultz refuse that final compromise with a well-timed “I couldn’t resist.” Maybe he knew that, after having already tolerated so much bloodshed, he’d have no basis for denying his heroes justice on the grounds of averting more violence, and maybe he saw a chance in the process to solve the problem posed by films like Salò—to transform his camera from a noncommittal witness into a tool of righteous judgment. That wouldn’t explain (or condone) the sheer joy Tarantino clearly derives from Django’s final rampage(s). But it would suggest that, in the world of Django Unchained, two wrongs might make a right—at least as close to a right as we’re likely to get in Tarantino’s Deep South.