Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s tale of freed slave turned revenge-seeking bounty hunter, is an unforgettable film, though you may wish you could forget it. Like Tarantino’s other films, Django is a tense, darkly humorous, extremely violent film erupting with intertextual film references like the oil erupts from the earth when the ground is struck with a pickaxe in a cartoon. Or like the blood spurts from the film’s characters when they are shot. Or like a popped zit.
To its credit, Django Unchained turns from comic to tragic to disgusting quicker than the film’s titular hero can unsheathe his six shooter. The film is an operatically orchestrated, thrilling ride, epic in scope like the German myths it explicitly references and as constantly surprising as the fact that it explicitly references German myths.
Did I love it? No. Should you see it? Probably, if you can bear it. Because of this method, Tarantino is, in my opinion, the past quarter century’s most important director, and Django Unchained provides a good lens through which to better see and understand the merits of his cannon.
Tarantino is a revisionist director. Every single film he has made is not so much a genre film as it is a critique of a genre, be that genre heist, mobster, Blaxploitation, kung-fu, horror, WWII, and now Spaghetti Western films. The method of his critique – intertextual reference – is more important than any intended meaning of the films themselves. In fact, any deeper meaning or message conveyed by his movies seems to be incidental and a product of his method.
Intertextuality juxtaposes two “texts,” or in Tarantino’s case, films, and draws our meaning based on that juxtaposition. Sometimes, this juxtaposition highlights humor via dramatic irony (a scene where the KKK can’t see at night in their masks) or via the sheer inappropriateness of the juxtaposition (a black man whipping a white man). Sometimes, this juxtaposition reveals latent biases in the texts or genres (Django’s first bounty is on the “Brittle Brothers” and “Col. Nathan Brittles” is the name of John Wayne’s character in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon). My favorite juxtapostion is when Jaime Foxx sits at a bar next to Franco Nero, the original Django. It’s a reference that is both humorous and historically revelaing.
This method of comparison can be handled deftly, inspiring awe and quiet, almost unconscious acceptance (the blood on the cotton), or it can be grotesquely heavy-handed, causing repulsion (Tarantino’s use of a James Brown/Tupac mash-up as Django begins his killing spree). Tarantino manages both these effects throughout this film. The vacillation between the graceful and grotesque makes the film feel unpredictable and unnerving, but also uneven.
Any over-arching meaning of these juxtapositions, though, is the result of each viewer’s individual interpretation. Tarantino’s only intent seems to be to entertain. At this, he succeeds mightily. All of his intertextual references then are like so many strips of dried grass woven together to make an empty basket. The viewer gets to fill that basket with whatever they like.
To illustrate this point, since Tarantino is so fond of comparisons, I want to compare Django against Inglourious Basterds. The films invite comparison. They’re both historical revisions in addition to being cinematic revisions. Both feature historically oppressed people taking violent revenge on their oppressors.
Morally, however, they are very different. Basterds is a morally ambiguous film. Yes, it’s about killing Nazis, our world’s no-questions-asked-do-what-you-like-to-them villain, but the most abhorrently violent acts are performed by the good guys. The ultimate effect is to confront the viewer with his or her appetite for violent revenge, to cause her or him to consider that desire and judge it. Becuase the film only considers the violence, but does not judge it, one can justifiably claim that Basterds either condones or condemns revenge in pursuit of justice.
Django Unchained‘s moral universe is, pardon the pun, very black and white – the slave owners are the villains and the slaves, both free and captive, are the heroes.* The most repugnant violence is committed by the villains in Django, not by the heroes. When the heroes do act violently, their acts are presented as considered, comparatively charitable, and in the pursuit of justice. In the end, Django doesn’t inspire reflection on the part of its viewers like Basterds does. It only inspires a momentary, reflexive response, be that response laughter or disgust.
Django‘s morally simplistic universe isn’t necessarily a negative though. I’m not saying we should seek to “understand” or empathize with slave owners. Basterds wasn’t “about” the Holocaust. It was “about” revenge and justice, morally complex ideas. Django is “about” slavery in the American South, and there’s nothing morally ambiguous about slavery in the American South. It was from hell.
However, Django Unchained‘s basic moral structure does make it a very simple film. To return to my basket-weaving metaphor, it’s a shallow vessel. Viewers are incapable of pouring much meaning into it. And any menaing poured in is one’s own. Tarantino just wants to weave a cool basket.
He suceeds. Tarantino’s antebellum adventure is a terrifically entertaining film (if one can stomach the violence), though given the subject matter and astounding filmmaking ability on display, one may wish Django aspired to more.
*There are two very notable exception to this black/white, hero/villain dichotomy – Dr. King Schultz (note the name) and Stephen, the house slave. Both exist, partially, to highlight the otherwise badness or goodness of their respective races. Dr. King and Stephen are also, respectively, the height and horror of their races, what each other character of their race is capable of becoming if they change. The price they each pay is the price one must pay for rebelling against one’s race to either buck or bolster the system.