It’s taken me several months to catch up with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but I finally watched it a couple of days ago. My quick response about this film is that I thought it was great, easily of Tarantino’s best films. There are some spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen it and/or don’t want to know what happens, you should probably stop reading. I just can’t talk about this film and my reaction to it without revealing things that happen.
I had a much different reaction to it than I normally would to the usual Tarantino film. With the exception of “Death Proof” (which I liked but didn’t love), Tarantino’s films usually leave me breathless and giddy by the end of them. I remember seeing “Inglourious Basterds” late one night in 2009 and not being able to get to sleep for at least three hours after because I was so wired. However, at the end of “Django Unchained,” I felt shattered and wrung out.
Like “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is a brilliant revenge thriller that takes a while to set up, but the lengthy and compelling set-up explodes in the most astonishing of ways. Yet “Django Unchained” was a lot different and it took me a few days to fully comprehend why I felt the way I did.
Like most Tarantino films, there is a lot of dark humor and humorous violence in “Django Unchained.” But there’s also a lot of horrific violence (the scenes depicting the torture and murder of slaves) as well as much of the dialogue (discussing how subhuman the slaves are by the slaveowners) that’s hard to shake. Please note that this isn’t a criticism of the film. Slavery was an ugly, nasty period of American history and to his credit, Tarantino depicts this part of the story in a non-humorous, non-ironic way.
The movie that it most reminded me of was Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” “Straw Dogs” is a violent revenge film, but it doesn’t play out in the ways you expect or even want a revenge melodrama to take place. Yes, there is a violent revenge taken out against people deserving of it. But it’s done based on a misunderstanding and not for the reasons for why it should be carried out. Setting the story up this way is Peckinpah calling the audience out on their blood lust and making them pay dearly for it.
Yes, I was extremely happy when Jamie Foxx’s Django enacts revenge on a lot of evil people who deserve it. But the set up surrounding it was so terrible to watch, I felt drained and didn’t want to talk to anyone for a long time after it was over. I don’t know if this was Tarantino’s intent, but I would argue that it was. The scenes depicting the torture and murder of slaves are so upsetting, that watching Django enact his revenge doesn’t have the same lift it would have had these scenes not been shown. The revenge violence is less entertaining than sad, even though you don’t feel sorry for the people being blown away. The fact that this is THE most violent and bloody of all of Tarantino’s films overall may be part of a bigger, deeper point.
I believe Tarantino is trying to make the audience come to terms with its own savagery. Because when you laugh ironically at someone’s violent death in a film, it requires a certain amount of dehumanization. Dramatically, I’m not saying this is either good or bad. Nor am I condemning anyone for loving Tarantino’s films. I love Tarantino’s films immensely. But to deny that dehumanization is taking place when you enjoy them, is looking at the films dishonestly. And the juxtaposition the dehumanization of slaves by many of the characters in “Django Unchained” with the dehumanization an audience feels when they enjoy watching someone die onscreen in a graphic way is a painfully meta-textual way of proving a point … and to come to a complex emotional truth about the nature of violent art.
Or maybe not … History may prove me wrong, but I would be willing to bet that “Django Unchained” will be a transitional film in Tarantino’s oeuvre. It will be interesting to see what Tarantino does next and whether he continues viewing the subject of violence in an increasingly complex manner. In any case, “Django Unchained” is an incredibly deep and heavy film in every sense of the word.
Hmmm… makes me wonder if Tarantino employs theater of cruelty to demonstrate the savagery. I wrote something on the topic quite recently: http://cinemainterruptus.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/cinema-of-cruelty/