Saturday, December 29, 2012
Review - Django Unchained (2012)
I wasn't really sure what to expect going into Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. His previous film, 2009's Inglourious Basterds, left me pretty conflicted. It had some absolutely brilliant scenes, but there was such a massive disconnect between the stories of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and the titular Basterds (led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine) that I had trouble reconciling the film. I was fascinated by Shosanna's story, but outside of one or two great moments, I didn't enjoy the adventures of the Basterds and part of me wished it had been split into two films. I found its statements on the power of film and the question of what it means to enjoy violence in films fascinating, but it was blunt and gross to the point that it wasn't pleasant to watch. That's probably the point, but regardless, it left me with an unpleasant feeling, and I certainly wasn't cheering on the Basterds in their campaign.
2012's Django Unchained similarly sells itself as a revenge story about the power of violence, but does so in a far more graceful manner than Basterds managed. There is a split in tone halfway through the movie, but both halves complement each other in a way I feel the two narratives of Basterds failed to do. While the film isn't without issues, Django is incredibly dense and subtle while at the same time embracing over the top lunacy in a way that works perfectly, and is Tarantino's best film of his post-1990's career.
Django Unchained is set in the years leading up to the American Civil War and opens with its titular lead, played by Jamie Foxx, liberated from slavery by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant who some years ago made the transition from dentist to bounty hunter. Schultz needs Django to help him identify the Brittle Brothers, three criminals from Django's past. Django complies and soon becomes a part of Schultz's career and ambition, working not in a master and slave relationship, but as partners. Schultz soon learns that Django's wife Brunhilde/Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) has been sold as a slave to an unknown party. The two men agree to work together throughout the winter before embarking on a rescue/revenge mission in the spring. The story is at its core a Western set primarily in the Deep South rather than the Old West.
Visually, Django Unchained offers a mix of styles, shifting as its tone does. Most of the film is full of rich colors, gorgeous scenery, and plenty of wide shots of desolate landscapes. When we get flashbacks to Django's past, the film switches to a grimy, washed out look similar to what Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez filled their 2007 double feature Grindhouse with. When the film shifts into violent battle scenes, it uses cartoonish effects, bombastic music, and angles that accentuate Django's bravado. These elements are absent from a couple of much more disturbing, but largely off-screen, acts of violence that are meant to horrify both the audience and our protagonists.
As usual, Tarantino has selected a strong soundtrack that goes a great way to establishing the film's tone. A perfectly placed montage set to Jim Croce's I Got a Name is used to show Django and Schultz are partners and perhaps brothers, rather than a white man and a slave, as well as, as a friend of mine pointed out, serving as a perfect backdrop of the American Dream; a former slave and an immigrant working together to get rich and find true love (in the rescue of Hilde) while overcoming the harshness of both society and the elements. These men appear as heroic figures, even if what they're doing is ghoulish; killing criminals (wanted dead or alive) and collecting bounties on their corpses. The song itself feels pretty out of place with the rest of the film's music up to this point, but at the same time somehow fits perfectly. Later in the film, Beethoven's Für Elise used masterfully, played by an in-film character as Dr. Schultz begins to break under pressure. My only complaint with the film's soundtrack is Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave playing for only a few seconds before cutting out; it's a great song that fits its scene perfectly, and could have stood to go on longer, even if the film already feels a bit bloated at nearly three hours in length.
From this point on, I will be discussing major plot points. Don't read any further if you want to go into the film unspoiled.
I do think that, overall, this film could stand to be shorter. At the same time, it's hard to really say what I would want changed, because as it is, Django Unchained is so loaded with pieces to dissect and I wouldn't really want to lose any of them. I do think the final act is weirdly paced, but I wouldn't know how to do it differently. I don't want to dwell on that, and instead want to look at some of the most interesting elements of the film. This may be a bit scattered, as you could probably write a decent length essay on any one of these topics. Once again, if you're concerned with going into the film fresh, you should probably stop reading here.
Morality of Violence
Like Inglourious Basterds before it, Django Unchained attempts to deconstruct violence on film, both as an act of horror and as an act of audience sanctioned vengeance. I personally didn't find the message compelling in Basterds; I absolutely didn't enjoy watching its heroes kill their German prisoners, so the moral finger-waving that said, "Are you really any better than the Nazi hierarchy cheering at propaganda films?" fell flat with me.
Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games asks a similar question. It presents a horrific home invasion scenario with no possible good end and condemns the audience as being complicit in its mayhem. Funny Games says to its audience, "You want horror? Here's horror, you monsters." That film didn't work for me either. I found it gross and repellent, because no, this is not what I want. The element of horror I find compelling is seeing an average person overcome impossible odds to survive a nightmare. I don't like films where you cheer for the monster, unless it's something as cartoonish as Godzilla. I don't like torture films. With a few notable exceptions, I don't like films where everyone dies in the end. Funny Games didn't work for me, because its accusation wasn't something I was guilty of. I probably should have just turned it off. Large swaths of Inglourious Basterds felt the same way to me, which is a shame since its good scenes, meaning ones that are entirely dialogue driven, are quite good.
Django Unchained feels like a second shot at the message of Inglourious Basterds, only not nearly as blunt, not nearly as preachy, and harder to say "This really isn't talking to me" to. There are two extremely disturbing bits of violence in Django, which, interestingly, happen almost entirely off screen, or in very brief flashes less than seconds in length. Both take place in the second half of the film, after Django and Schultz arrive in Mississippi. At this point, they have tracked down plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the man who has purchased Django's wife. Our two protagonists infiltrate Candie's plantation under the guise of slave traders looking to purchase a slave for use in brutal hand to hand combat. Once there, Schultz sees for the first time just how sick this world is; he has assassinated criminals from afar plenty of times, but he has never seen anything quite like he finds in Candie Land.
The first major encounter with horrific violence marks a distinct shift in the film's tone. Schultz and Django first meet Candie at The Cleopatra Club, a gentlemen's club with a phony foreign flair. Candie is in the midst of watching one of his strongest slaves fight a slave owned by an Italian visitor to the death. The fight is mostly obscured, and yet is much more unsettling than any of the deaths that came before. The men we've seen shot by Schultz and later by Django all die in extremely cartoonish ways, with lots of fake blood that's so ridiculous it's hard to find painful. The slave fight is a complete turn from this; instead of violence being shown as ridiculous and cartoony, it's shown as blunt, real, and horrible. Schultz justifies the men he kills by the fact that they've all, at some point in their lives, been murderers themselves. There is no way to justify the fight that happens in Candie's den, and it sickens the audience just as it does Schultz.
Shultz and Django encounter a second act of horror as they ride with Candie to his plantation. One of Candie's slaves has been caught attempting to flee and Candie sentences him to death by dogs. Schultz quickly breaks character and offers to buy the man's freedom, but is held back by Django, who insists that noninterference in the plantation's business is the only way to infiltrate it without blowing their cover. The sight of this act haunts Schultz the rest of the film; for all of the times he has shot criminals, whether up close or from afar, he's never witnessed this sort of senseless brutality and it absolutely destroys him. A character who is always previously completely calm and in control of himself has been absolutely torn apart by what he's seen.
In these two moments, as well as other tragic but less hideous acts earlier in the film, Tarantino offers a look at the horrors of slavery in a way that's more brutal and physical than films generally show. That's not to say that this is a new concept, or executed in a superior manner to other films, but it's important to what follows. The true intentions of Django and Schultz are uncovered by Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's oldest and most trusted slave. Candie tears down their charade, terrifies Hilde, but ultimately allows Schultz to buy her freedom for the cost that he had pretended he was going to pay for a fighting slave. Papers are signed and money handed over; all Candie wants before Django, Hilde, and Schultz are allowed to go free is a handshake. Schultz, haunted by flashbacks to the brutality he's witnessed, cannot bring himself to shake Candie's hand, even if it's the only path to a clean getaway. He instead pulls a hidden derringer pistol from his sleeve and shoots Candie, initiating a series of events in which Schultz is killed and Django recaptured after a brutal shootout.
We get to see Django gun down dozens of men in a bloodbath, but unlike the soldiers of Inglourious Basterds, it's hard not to cheer for him. He's been through hell, his wife has been abused, and his best friend and mentor is dead; we have a very personal investment in his character, in his freedom, and in his survival. It's hard to not want to see him triumph over the forces that maintain the institution of slavery, in both the first Candie Land shootout and the film's climax, in which Django escapes captivity again to take out the final remnants of Candie's domain. The soundtrack, camera work, and tone all absolutely paint Django as being in the right, but regardless of our desire to see Django ride off into the sunset with Hilde, these are still executions.
Things didn't have to go down this way, but when they do, the audience is encouraged to go along for the ride in a way that legitimizes every shot Django takes. Django himself becomes a horror movie monster by the end, even if the men he's killing are irredeemable people. His actions are certainly not comparable to the earlier atrocities we see committed against slaves, but Tarantino absolutely asks the audience, "What makes this violence so palatable when the earlier violence was so repellant?" The slave fight is choreographed like a UFC event in such an obvious way that it's impossible to watch it and not connect it to one of today's most popular sporting events. What makes this violence so disturbing while UFC is in some places a family event?
"The plot" is the easy answer, but I think it runs a lot deeper than that. The film is not a condemnation of violence in pop culture, but it is a condemnation of allowing violence to exist without thinking about its nature, its consequences, and its origins. Django Unchained isn't saying "we shouldn't watch violent movies," it's saying "we should think about why violence exists." This isn't a new statement for film to make; it's not even new for a Tarantino film. However, I think that through its juxtaposed scenes of horror and heroism, Django Unchained does it better than most.
Schultz and Misdirection
From the first minute we meet Dr. Schultz, he is portraying himself as something he's not. He presents himself to Django's slavers as a naive, bumbling dentist with a comical air about him, throwing them off guard and allowing him to unexpectedly kill one of the two slavers once threatened. Soon after, Schultz takes Django to a small town in Texas and thumbs his nose at the town's traditions by taking a black man into the saloon for a drink. The sheriff is called, and upon arrival is shot dead by Schultz, who then tells the barkeep to get the town's marshal. The immediate question is whether Schultz is a psychopathic monster, and whether Django's lot in life has gone from bad to worse. Schultz soon shows his hand, revealing to the marshal that the sheriff was a wanted criminal who had committed murders of his own in another place in the years prior to his election and that he was merely here to collect the bounty on his head, dead or alive.
Schultz continues to use this method throughout the film. He feigns interest in buying a slave girl from a plantation run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), a man whose farm hosts the three men Django was first freed in order to held find. When meeting with Calvin Candie, Schultz plays the role of a slaver interested in buying a fighter, and asks Django to play the role of a black slaver who can help advise him in making a sound investment. Schultz absolutely loves his theatrics, and molds Django in his image. When Django and Hilde are finally reunited, Schultz says that Django "loves theatrics," but really, no one loves them more than Schultz himself.
The fascinating thing about Schultz theatrics is that they are, ultimately, needless, with the exception of catching Django's slave drivers off guard. His bounty hunting is court ordered and entirely legal, so there's no need for deception where it's not warranted. He didn't have to horrify the people of Daughtry, Texas by shooting their sheriff in cold blood in the middle of a busy street. If he'd gone to the marshall in the first place and shown the same documents he would show after the shooting, business could have been conducted with no bloodshed. If he'd gone to Big Daddy and revealed his true intent and legal standing to search the property and seize the Brittle Brothers to begin with, Big Daddy might have cooperated and avoided a lot of later bloodshed. If he'd gone to Candie and directly told him, "I'm a German immigrant, I heard you have a slave who speaks German. I'd like to purchase her," there's really no doubt that Candie would have agreed for the right cost, as he had no real investment in Hilde to begin with.
That doesn't mean the film's plot is ridiculous or Schultz's planning terrible. It means that the first question audiences ask about him is still the most important. Is Schultz a psycopath? In a lot of ways, yes. He's manipulative, immensely egotistical, and able to kill without any emotional conflict. Simply winning isn't his goal in his manipulations; rather, his goal is to completely and utterly outsmart the people he comes in contact with. During dinner with Candie, Schultz talks hypothetically of circuses, and of using a slave fighter as a circus attraction. The truth is that Schultz's whole career as a bounty hunter has itself been a circus act, with he himself playing the role of ringmaster and the men he encounters turned into his clowns.
Schultz' egotism is what gets him killed in the end; he doesn't snap and kill Candie entirely because the man's a monster who has allowed terrible things to happen. He kills him because Candie calls his bluff, reveals his true intents, and makes a fool of him. Candie was still willing to sell him Hilde and let Schultz and Django go free after all that transpired, but Schultz, broken equally by the brutality he has witnessed at the hands of Candie's men and by the fact that Candie has bested him, completely snaps. He shoots Candie immediately recognizing that this was a terrible idea and knowing that he may have doomed Django and Hilde in doing so. Schultz being the one to snap is one of the best reversals in the film, as the entire act leading up to this scene has Django being shown as the one always reaching for his gun, just barely holding his rage in check. The audience absolutely expects Django to be the one to snap at Candie, but he's the one who maintains self control while Schultz dives over the edge.
Schultz is an incredibly likeable guy with a good sense of humor and when it comes to slavery, his heart's in the right place. He abhors the institution, and believes in treating all human beings equally regardless of race, nationality, or gender. He has a strong code of honor and is a civilized man, but there's no escaping the fact that he's a murderer who uses showmanship to justify his actions. Schultz does serve as a master to Django, but not in the master/slave sense. Rather, the two men have a master/apprentice relationship. Schultz is the old knight/samurai passing on his wisdom to a youth in order to preserve his view of honor. At their peak, these men absolutely behave as equals and as brothers. When Django first meets Schultz, he is barely willing to lift his eyes at him out of fear. As they travel together, Django's confidence and self worth has grown to the point of him being able to take charge in situations where Schultz is morally unable to. This lesson in self worth is one that helps Django become a stronger man, capable of saving his wife and surviving.
Ultimately, Schultz is a tragic figure done in by his own love of theatrics and romantic idealism. He is always willing to help Django, but it's upon learning the name of his wife and regaling Django with a very truncated telling of the myth of Brunhilde and Siegfried that Schultz really becomes one-hundred percent dedicated to helping his friend rescue her. He is a good man at his core whose personality has allowed him to become a monster, even if he only kills other monsters. He is absolutely not emotionless, and he cares a great deal about his fellow man, but he is also able to turn off that care when it comes to getting a job done. That is, until Candie breaks him. Another man could have gone with Django and negotiated Hilde's freedom bloodlessly, but not Schultz. Deception and misdirection are such an intrinsic part of his identity that there's no way he'd play it straight, even when playing it straight is the wiser course. The only way Django frees himself and survives the end of the film is through using the misdirection skills that Schultz has taught him, but the showmanship he displays after finally having his revenge (parading his horse around in a dressage routine) raises the question of whether Django, though now free, is just as inevitably doomed as Schultz.
Stephen and Misdirection
One of the most unusual and interesting characters in the film, and its most problematic, is Stephen, Calvin Candie's head house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson. When we first meet him, Stephen parades around buffoonishly, feeling more like a vaudeville clown than a real person. The initial impression his character gives is an offensive one; did Tarantino really include a shucking and jiving walking stereotype in a film that otherwise offers layered characters? The answer is that this impression is a blatant misdirection, both towards the audience and the film's characters. Stephen carries on as a grumpy, senile loudmouth, unafraid of mouthing off to Candie, who seemingly tolerates him because his crotchety nature is amusing, but his true self couldn't be further from this image.
Django first appears to Stephen while playing the role of a black slaver, and this roleplaying is ultimately what leads to everything at Candie Land erupting into violence. Earlier in the film, Django states that there is nothing lower than a black slaver, and Stephen most certainly agrees; his hatred and rage is barely contained behind his goofy facade. Stephen looks for any cracks in Django's armor, ready to find whatever he can to out him and find out what he's really doing in Candie Land. If not for Schultz's insistence on Django playing this role, Stephen would have no reason to so thoroughly resent him, and no reason to ignite the spark that leads to the shootout.
While Stephen spends most of his screen time putting on an act, there are two moments where he lets his true self out. When he realizes that Hilde and Django know each other, and that Schultz and Django aren't interested in acquiring a slave fighter, Stephen calls Candie aside to the plantation's library, where they have a private meeting in which Stephen lays out the truth as he sees it. In this scene, Stephen's language changes to a more controlled, more sophisticated style, and he speaks to Candie not as a slave, and not as an equal, but as a superior. He talks down to Candie not in the theatrical way we first see him insult his owner, but in a way a CEO may talk down to a poor performing manager. It's clear from this scene that the two men have a relationship that extends beyond slave and master, and feels more like a business partnership akin to that of Django and Schultz. It's not Candie that outwits Schultz, but rather Stephen, who uses Candie as his instrument to direct his rage at Django, who he sees as the lowest of the low. Later, towards the end of the film, Stephen throws off the charade to Django himself, tossing aside his cane and abandoning the limping shuffle he performs during the rest of his time. Stephen knows he's going to die and wants Django to know that he was the one who beat Schultz before he goes.
The problem with Stephen is that we don't really get an understanding of what he is working towards with Candie. He's as much a con man and ringmaster as Schultz, but there isn't a clear picture of what game he's playing, aside from wanting to punish someone he believes is a black slaver. His relationship with Candie is clearly long established and mutually beneficial, but it's hard to gauge what exactly Stephen can gain from said relationship. He still lives the life of a slave, even if he can bend Candie to his will. Even though I felt the film was already long, more time with this character would have gone a long way to establishing him as a man with real ambitions and motivations. Is he using his position of power to dismantle the plantation from within? What becomes of him if Candie dies? There aren't any answers to these questions, but I definitely want to know more about Stephen's role in the plantation. As it stands, having a black man be the ultimate mastermind behind the villain in a film about slavery feels like a bad idea. A deeper moral good behind the actions he takes would have helped avoid this, and would have strengthened his portrayal as a mirror figure to Schultz and Django. Stephen's character is one of the film's most interesting, but at the same time, not its best executed.
Deconstruction of Southern Gentility
Without a doubt, the villains in this film, Stephen possibly excepted, are purely bad people with no shades of gray. Candie, Big Daddy, and the Brittle Brothers have no redeeming qualities. All are ignorant, arrogant killers, and Candie and Big Daddy use the veneer of sophistication to try to convince themselves otherwise. This is different from the misdirection shown by Schultz, Django, and Stephen, who work to misdirect others. Candie and Big Daddy, and in effect the entire Southern plantation establishment, work to misdirect themselves from the truth of their own horrors.
After Schultz and Django eliminate the Brittle Brothers on his property, Big Daddy leads a nighttime raid of pre-KKK regulators to get revenge. Every man in his party is completely incompetent, whether they're a rich man or poor. They ride off in search of Django and Schultz with a sense of superiority and hatred, but are quickly revealed simply as idiots. They can't see out of the eye holes in their poorly constructed hoods, they can't come together to form any kind of plan that extends beyond riding and yelling, and they get themselves killed falling for an obvious trap. This scene seems extraneous and could have been removed without affecting the film's plot, but I'm glad it's here, because it's extremely funny, well written, and absurd. It feels like a lost scene from Blazing Saddles rather than a bit from a Tarantino film. The buffoonery of Big Daddy and company serves to deflate the pompousness of Calvin Candie before we even get a chance to meet him.
Candie fancies himself an intellectual with a love of French culture, but his interests are entirely hollow. One of the first things learn about Candie is his lawyer telling Schultz that he prefers to be addressed as Monsieur, but that Schultz shouldn't use any other French in front of him as he'll feel angry and embarrassed by not personally knowing the language. We learn that Candie admires Dumas' Three Musketeers, but knows nothing of its characters or its author. His so called appreciation for the French seems to begin and end with knowing how to say Monsieur, liking French maid outfits, and wearing burgundy coats.
Here, Tarantino rips apart the myth of Civil War era Southern gentility by explicitly showing that in spite of all the trappings, the plantation owners are no more sophisticated than the random mountain man who can barely speak through a mouth full of mush. These people were all equally culpable for propagating the horrors of slavery, and the film is quick to condemn them all equally. Candie's older sister, who shares an uncomfortable incestuous vibe with her brother, is shown to be far more kind than the other members of the plantation, but her lifestyle propagates the system all the same. There's no gray area here; those who support monstrous institutions are monsters.
Django Unchained is an impressive film that deserves a great deal of analysis. There's a lot here, and the film is absolutely thick with both bluntness and subtlety in a way that somehow mixes perfectly. There are problems, but at the very least they're interesting problems rather than questions of competence. I wish Kerry Washington had had more screen time in her role as Hilde, so that her character felt more like a person and less than a pure damsel in distress. I wish Stephen had been more fleshed out. I wonder what the intention was behind naming a white man "Dr. King" Schultz. That aside, every moment in the film feels dramatically intentional and none are wasted, even if not all are necessary. Tarantino's blend of realism and hyper-stylized fantasy which began in Kill Bill is at its best here, and I'm very glad to see him both deconstruct and embrace the core concepts of the Western as a genre.