Reviews

'Django Unchained': Tarantino's Next Revision

As typical or archetypal as Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen may be, he is also and ever alone, for that is his definition, fearful and mean and produced by a fearful and mean system.


Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-12-25 (General release)
UK date: 2013-01-18 (General release)
Website
Trailer
And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.

-- Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Pulp Fiction

"I spent my life surrounded by black faces," announces Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), scion of a Mississippi plantation. At the moment, he's got one at his dinner table, the ex-slave and current bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx). The dinner party -- which includes Django's partner Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Candie's sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) -- pauses to hear Candie's memory, which he poses in the form of a question: "Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?"

At this point in Django Unchained, Django has actually killed a number of the whites, and he's taken some righteous pleasure in it, seeing as they've been loutish slave beaters and raucous Klan members. He's taken up the trade by dint of Schultz, a dentist by training, who uses him first to identify some white brothers on his bounty list, and indeed, on hearing what Schultz does, Django's response is as reasonable as Candie's: "You kill white folks for money: what's not to like?" as it happens, the two make a great team, both being sure shots and both being as committed to the money as the killing. Along the way, Schultz makes Django another deal, one that has led them to Candie's place, where Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is living as his property. Here they mean to purchase her, but if that doesn't work out, they're willing to kill more whites too.

So far, so jaunty. And so like so many other Quentin Tarantino movies, the men on a self-appointed mission repeatedly take one another's measure, sometimes judging themselves by their opponents, more often assuming their own earnest intelligence and wit will carry the day. Here again, the measure has to do with vengeance, and here, as in Inglorious Basterds that vengeance has been formulated out of historical events. Whereas before, Waltz played the Nazi so deserving of a terrible fate, here he plays the practical-minded German who tells Django the story of his wife's name ("Every German knows that story"), helping him to understand that those who have been torturing and raping her warrant the worst possible fate.

This is what passes for complexity in Django Unchained, that a man who trades in human bodies, and who talks about trading in human bodies as such, is self-aware enough that he sees both the hypocrisy and the horror of what he calls his "dirty world" and also his part in it. This makes Schultz both like and unlike Candie, a bully and a dandy and trader in mandingos (whom he has fighting to the death in ornamented parlors for entertainment, like cocks). Django remarks this similarity, and for a time sees the moneyed angle as a means for his own revenge, but it's not long before he's less interested in the trade than he is in the vengeance flat out, at which point the frequently charming Schultz tilts his head just so, to ask, "What happened to Mr. I want to shoot white folks for money?"

Django's loss of interest in their exceedingly lucrative enterprise might seem to situate him morally, that is, situate him differently than Schultz or really any of the white folks he encounters, including the buffoonish Big Daddy (Don Johnson) or the trackers (whose players include the endlessly inventive scary-redneck impersonator Walt Goggins and Tarantino too). It also situates him as something of a mythically potent Sweetback figure for the black slaves just waiting for someone to rise up and kill the whites.

Here Candie's after dinner testimonial is instructive again, for as he poses the question that shaped his childhood (apparently, to no good effect), he also offers an answer, the sort of faux-scientific answer that allows white academics and executives and professional sports leagues to justify their privilege; Candie's version has it that the black human skull is shaped differently from the white, and he proceeds to cut one open on the table to show how, in his estimation, blacks don't rise up because they have a greater capacity for civility than whites.

His conclusion is a bit of a punchline here, to be followed by another hour or so of gunfire and explosions and sensational abuses. Not that you haven't seen a good bit of abuse earlier, as the film makes plain the shocking devices white folks conjured to abuse their property, beginning with whips, shackles, and branding, and extending to masks and bits and horrific uses of dogs, penises, hotboxes, and knives against genitals. These scenes tend to be markers in the film, reasons for Django's own brutality, but they're daunting on their own, if you pause over them, slaves marched about before and after auction or as punishment, slaves assaulted and ravaged for trying to escape -- ostensibly to teach lessons, but more obviously as routes to amuse those who can so order.

And this is the issue, the issue of order. As much as Candie might imagine one based on skull dimensions or Schultz sees one in economies or Django sees one in vengeance, all the orders have their own logics, their own exacting processes, their own outcomes. That these outcomes might overlap or intersect or coincide only means the orders can accommodate multiple parties' interests. It doesn't make them any more sound or any more sustainable as a foundation for civility or dominance either.

Thus, even as Django manages to maintain his cover while witnessing the abject destruction of Candie's slave D'Artagnon (Ato Essandoh), he earns the hostility of the other slaves watching, who seem him as a collaborator. This aligns him, after a fashion, with the film's most grotesque collaborator, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's longtime head house Negro (this being a Tarantino film, the other n-word is used elaborately and commonly). Outfitted to resemble Uncle Ben and Tom too, Stephen is an obviously unnerving monster, determined to see Django disciplined for his uppity and remarkably convoluted scheme to fool Candie into selling Broomhilda (the reasoning-by-way-of-plot here is exceptionally knotted, even if regarded as one of those requisite convoluted schemes in Tarantino's self-multiplying dirty worlds).

Stephen, of course, has his own vengeance in mind, ever swirling, whether he seduces Candie into believing their shared illogic, or whether he intimidates his fellow slaves ("Why is I scaring you?" he mutters to Broomhilda, who has the right answer: "Because you scary.") This makes Stephen this film's most frightening, most incoherent, and most important subject. But as typical or archetypal as Stephen may be, he is also and ever alone, for that is his definition, fearful and mean and produced by a fearful and mean system. While he hates Django for good reason, he also sees in him his reflection. They're not so much opposites as the same, loathed and rewarded, grand and small. Vengeance is not a measure of civility. No matter how just it seems, in hunting Osama bin Laden or arming schoolteachers or delivering hours of bloody entertainment, vengeance is tragic and brutal and futile. Someone in this movie knows that, even if it's not the movie's own insight.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.