It’s one of the more exciting gunfight sequences in recent cinema. Having just witnessed the death of his mentor, Django Freeman, a former slave and a man searching for his wife and revenge against her captors, takes on all comers in a gun battle on the first floor of a plantation house.
It’s a sequence that is defined by Quentin Tarantino’s love for blaxploitation cinema, a genre interested in representing empowerment and justice through spectacles of violence. In this scene in Django Unchained, Django proves his worth and even the just nature of his cause in his proficiency in exacting revenge against his oppressors. Cowboys die in droves, blood splatters the walls, and his killing spree is only halted by a threat of violence against his wife, the woman he loves and his chief motivation for action throughout the movie.
When Django finally throws down his arms, surrendering in order to purchase his wife’s life, though, the camera pans across the entryway of the plantation house where the two to three minute battle has taken place. The camera lingers over the piles of dead bodies, the blood painting the walls of the once beautiful house. Yes, Django has surrendered, but not before the camera celebrates the carnage he was capable of, this celebration an acknowledgment of the triumph of the previous act, an act that represented the justice dispensed by a wronged man and an act that is beautifully choreographed, making it a pleasure to witness as an act of spectacular physical prowess and moral potency.
Rewatching this sequence the other evening, especially the lingering shots of the dead at its close, I was reminded of another media product that lingers over and makes the viewer consider the aftermath of combat, a video game released in the same year as Django Unchained, 2012, Dennaton Games’s hyperviolent top-down shooter, Hotline Miami.
Every gunfight in Hotline Miami (which is what every single level consists of in the game, an extended gun battle between your avatar and his opponents) is marked by this same consideration of carnage at the conclusion of the battle. A unique quality of this shooter is its requirement that the player witness the results of his “accomplishments” throughout any given level by requiring that the player always walk back across the battlefield to return to his car after the action of the level is complete.
Many action-oriented games, especially those that fixate on play as a means of enacting spectacles of violence, like Bayonetta or the Devil May Cry series, consider the achievement of victory at the close of any given level. These games feature statistics that reveal your body count and evaluate your performance, grading your skill at enacting stylish and efficient kill combos. Hotline Miami, like Django Unchained, is hardly so abstract. Instead, if Hotline Miami celebrates your success as a psychotic killer (And this is the context for the violence in the game, The protagonist is not a man wronged, seeking justice. He is a man driven by the dictates of a voice on the other end of a telephone line, who directs him on his killing sprees, a kind of schizophrenic nightmare existence.), it reveals to the player the outcomes of a successfully completed level in images of flesh and blood, not in numbers and a final grade report.
The walk back to the car is a lingering reminder of triumph and victory, but one due to the context of the violence, that context suggesting that these moments constitute a less obviously triumphant, more sickening celebration of carnage. Like Django, you have accomplished some amazing feats, and now you bear witness to the results of the skillful execution of action and violence. What is twisted or, perhaps, brilliant about Hotline Miami is its ability to evoke an sense of admiration for your own achievement and the soul crushing despondency that is also present in these reflective moments. The game evokes horror and pleasure as equally appropriate emotive responses to your own performance as a killer, forcing self reflection, rather than mere admiration for a distantly admired anti-hero.
The distinct difference between these similar scenes is, of course, the moral context in which they are placed. Hotline Miami strips the actions of the player of any kind of reasonable moral justification, leaving all of the emotional responses of the player to be weighed in terms of instinct and the visceral response to action and consequence itself. There is the thrill of the act and the horror of the act left with no rational justification for either beyond a sense of personal achievement and a sense of personal guilt. Django Unchained provides a larger moral context for these acts of violence. There is a social and political and personal context for injustice, so the thrill of enjoying carnage becomes justifiable as it clearly is a response to acts that represent recompense, comeuppance, and wrongs that can be righted, corrected, and put to an end.
The celebration of violence and carnage of Django Unchained implies a moral universe. The celebration of violence and carnage of Hotline Miami implies an amoral one, begging the question of whether all action is just justified by a brutish addiction to the thrill of executions of skill, of style, of irresistible instinct.
// Notes from the Road
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