All of the ongoing dialogue concerning the “moral bankruptcy” of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained needs to stop. Fuck that. In the world of Tarantino, plot, dialogue, and story arch are all instruments of outlandish fantasy lying readily at the fingertips of their incendiary movie man. His films are lavish tales–deeply rich in style–that exist outside of time and space, and, Django Unchained is certainly no exception. In them, violence is prevalent, but isn’t glorified. Since Reservoir Dogs, it has existed, and still exists as stylistic decoration but is not–as some have claimed–an endorsement of such things.
While on his press tour for the film, QT has been asked incessantly, without fail, about the correlation between violence in reality and violence in his movies, and he, also without fail, is no longer taking questions. I don’t blame him. If more people viewed and discussed his films in the manner in which they were meant to be viewed and discussed, our dialogue wouldn’t be so prevalent. When it comes to QT, we, collectively, have lost our perspective (not to mention the seedier side of our sense of humor, too).
And what of his “depiction” of slavery? I’ll get to that later.
Much like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is an extension of the aforementioned fantasy world of QT. This time, though, it’s in overdrive, if, in fact, such a thing exists for the man who envisioned the outrageous brilliance of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Basterds. While walking out of the theater, my mind was busy pondering a young Tarantino–the movie store clerk who, allegedly, spent countless hours eagerly consuming every film he could get his hands on: Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Exploitation, Blaxploitation, Kung Fu, Drama. QT: the genre-soaking sponge that, nearly two decades later, has conceptualized a slam-bang genre mash up of the highest and–for lack of a better term–most kick ass order.
In order to sufficiently describe the entirety of Django’s plot, any movie critic/blogger would need more than enough space to bore their reader out of the review (not because the plot is at all boring, rather, it would be consuming and tedious to describe in detail). To do such a thing would be a complete, unnecessary (not to mention shitty) disservice to the reader, anyway. The beauty of a film like Django Unchained is not having its moments of unequivocal inventiveness ruined for you.
It’s the stuff of extravagant lore, and it all begins with Dr. Schultz’s (Christolph Waltz) wagon riding out of the darkest of fairy tale, pre-Civil War forests: “Somewhere in Texas.” Here, he runs across a group of white men escorting a group of shackled slaves. One of them is named Django (Jamie Foxx), and, Dr. Schultz is interested in the man. Django possess knowledge on the whereabouts of the Brittle brothers, a group of men with bounty’s on their head that Schultz–a bounty hunter disguised as a dentist–is eager to find and eliminate. Once Django becomes, well, unchained, Tarantino’s relentless revenge epic kicks into fifth gear.
Connecting the onscreen action from dot to dot is his dialogue–an instrument that permeates every one of Tarantino’s films. As far as movies go, it’s the stuff of unsurpassed prose. Like a modern day Mark Twain, Tarantino’s characters speak their lines as you would hear them in a dream, and, as Schultz and Django begin their search for the Brittle brothers, QT flies rapidly out of the gate, firing straight from the hip. What happens in the first part of the film, without the intentional attention paid to dialogue would, and could be captured in fifteen minutes. This is not, and never has been Tarantino’s intention, though: style, beyond all else, makes this man tick.
As we are carried from one dot to another, stylishly, with intent, Django and Schultz begin making their way through the savage and bigoted Antebellum South, killing wanted men while Django finds satisfactory vengeance of his own: savagely beating white men to a bloody pulp. Before killing the Brittle brothers, the two men come to an agreement: upon successfully locating and eliminating them, Schultz will free Django, and take him on as an associate in his bounty hunting business. After a successful winter, the two set out to find Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington)– the estranged wife of Django–and to free her from the tyrannical inhumanity of Candie Land.
As we’re whisked along to the next dot, we find ourselves in the first of Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation homes. Django and Schultz have decided to pose as men interested in Mandingo fighting: Django is the expert, Schultz is the man with the cash, and, Candie is the man with the Mandigos. It’s with this scene that QT again delves deeply into his grab bag of dialogue tricks, suspending a series of scenes almost completely in the literary. During the Mandingo fighting scene itself–which also happens to be one of the films’ most gratuitously violent–the three men begin to ostentatiously parle in the way that only Tarantino’s characters can. I won’t give away specifics here. Again, to do so would rid one the joy of watching it all unfold.
After Calvin’s interest is peaked in a tempting asking price for one of his fighters, Schultz and Django are invited to Candie Land’s interior, where a majority of the remainder of the film takes place. Again, Tarantino utilizes style over substance as his characters humorously, hastily, tensely interact. The most memorable scene of the film occurs around such interplay, and,if you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly which scene I’m referring to before reading the next sentence. After Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)–Candie’s house slave–becomes privy to the fact that Django and Schultz are after Broomhilda instead of Mandingos, Calvin presents one of the most formidable, bone-chilling soliloquies in modern film.
Even though Calvin harbors an anger-laced disgust in the face of being played, he sells Broomhilda, but, of course, none of this will come to pass without a little good ol’ fashioned bloodshed, Tarantino style. Boy, will there be blood. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson should have sold the title of his 2008 oil epic to Tarantino. It would have been fitting. In what transpires as one of the most ludicrous (and awesome) shootouts in recent cinema, a lot of people die, and, the walls of Candie Land mansion are, quite literally, painted with blood. Django escapes, but, not without a price. He’s escorted from Candie Land but returns, in all his vengeful might, to wreak havoc on all of the white (and black) men (and women) who have wronged him, then rides Justice Obtained into the darkest of pre-Civil War forests–the same kind of forest that the bringer of good will, Dr. Schultz–emerged from in the films’ opening sequence.
So, what of Tarantino’s “depiction” of slavery and the films’ other hooplas? Django Unchained is no more a “depiction” of slavery than Inglourious Basterds is “about” World War II. Don’t get me wrong, though. Many scenes depict the brutality of the institution, but, Tarantino’s main objective is to use slavery as a device to drive his vengeful tale.
This brings me to the “gratuitous” use of the “n word.” If you think that entitled white men in the Antebellum South, on a constant basis, didn’t refer to slaves and other black people as “n words,” I have some beautiful beachfront property in Maui that I’ll sell you for five cents an acre. And, if you don’t think that word wasn’t uttered less than three times in a sentence when discussing a slave or any other “man of color,” I’ll lower my asking price to a penny. Anything more, which there is, is Tarantino pandering to the exploitation of your sensibilities. What, again, was that genre he began soaking up and became so enamored with as a young movie store clerk?
Perhaps you were offended at the end of it all, but why? Peering through the rich dialogue and exorbitant style is the ever-pervasive dark sense of humor in all of QT’s films. In 1994, during an interview with Roger Ebert at Cannes, Tarantino said:
“When I’m writing a movie, … I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? ‘Pulp Fiction’ has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for ‘Dogs’ just as much as ‘Pulp,’ is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh.”
So, to be offended and only offended is to experience Django Unchained myopically. Fuck all of the hoopla. This is storytelling at its finest. If we desired our best stories to be inoffensive, lackluster in conviction and meek in style, they wouldn’t be our best stories. It would be asking Mark Twain to not be Mark Twain. I don’t know about, you, but, asking Tarantino to not be Tarantino would be fatally detrimental to the culture of American cinema.
Let’s not be so sensitive, and, let us, collectively, welcome back the seedier side of our sense of humor, too.