Django Unchained

[SPOILER ALERTS: This is a discussion of Django Unchained, so if you have not seen it and don't want to hear about the plot, avert your eyes.]

I have not reviewed a movie here in some time. I was flipping through some old notebooks from film school this weekend, and I was drawn in by my notes discussing a variety of movies and their stylistic choices.

I stopped sharing my thoughts on movies because the sheer volume of film opinions online is overwhelming, and much of it is difficult or even fruitless to debate. I have a visceral reaction to every movie, but the web has no shortage of those.

Reviewing my notes from film school, though, I recalled a type of film analysis that I found more interesting and defensible, one based on assessing whether the artistic choices of a movie, from script to acting to cinematography to editing and everything in between,  supported the artist's intent. Time permitting, I'd like to start dissecting movies this way again occasionally, starting with the one I saw recently.

As one of my professors at UCLA once said, movies that are crafted with intent are the most interesting to study, and Quentin Tarantino is a director who, more and more, directs with a strong sense of intent. He certainly doesn't hide his influences, and his very public discussions of his own movies helps us to understand what he's going after before we've even left home for the theater. Django Unchained is a movie crafted with a very specific agenda and sits comfortably within Tarantino's personal universe of obsessions and values.

We know Tarantino's favorite movie is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we know he reveres spaghetti westerns, and he has said he made Django in part as a denunciation of the depiction of American slavery in movies by directors like John Ford and D.W. Griffith. Now that I've seen the movie, I've read a few reviews of the movie, and many of the critiques of the movie seem to have wanted Tarantino to make a historical recreation of some sort.

That's a valid critique, but it's exogenous to the movie itself. Tarantino loves the movies, and one of the pleasures of his movies is seeing how carefully he weaves together references to all sorts of movies from all of his favorite genres. Even his casting often is done with an eye to bringing all of the actor's past performances and roles to bear on the movie at hand. The intertextuality has always tickled me; if his movies were built in HTML they'd be filled with hyperlinks.

In Django Unchained, Christopher Waltz's King Schultz represents a model of violent but civilized justice, operating under the confines of the law. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that he's an immigrant and an outsider; he provides us with an urbane European's view of the abhorrence of American slavery. That he's a bounty hunter

When he is in the saloon with Django after having freed him, Schultz notes, with concern, that freeing Django to help him identify the three brothers he's chasing as a bounty hunter is an arrangement not much different from slavery. It sets him at unease, and to avoid any hint of that, he proposes a partnership. When they shake hands, they become business associates, and Tarantino seems to be offering both the audience and Django a new model for relationships between African Americans and whites, one that sets them on equal footing in a market economy. It is the cruel and transactional business of slavery (note how often in this movie the fair market value of slaves are discussed) transformed and purified.

Notably, it's also a relationship that happens to legalize and codify violence. After each of their successful assassinations, Schultz astonishes Django by restoring peace and forestalling any retribution by showing official court papers administering the bounty. It's astonishing to Django the first time it happens, but it has always been one of the peculiarities of the Western which have long been the perfect cinematic genre for exploring the tensions between the rogue individual (the gunslinger) and the laws of society (witness the strange ritualized rules of the duel, where two fighters face off rather than just shooting each other in the back).

When Django is reluctant to pull the trigger on his first bounty because the target is plowing a field with his son, Schultz has Django read the bounty slip. Unlike the brothers who had done him and Broomhilda direct harm or Spencer Bennett (Don Johnson) and his gang of KKK goons who attack them in the night, here is a white man who has never dealt Django any personal harm.

The murders listed on the bounty, Schultz lets Django know, is the equivalent of any crime Django experienced himself. In the world of the Western, and in Tarantino's universe, the only way to set the scales of justice even is with the sharp end of a bullet. The penalty for violating the civil rule of the community must be enforced for the good of society. Django responds by shooting the man with a business-like equanimity. It's the first of several moral recalibrations Django makes on his mission to save his wife.

Christopher Waltz is one of the greats in delivering Tarantino's dialogue. Schultz's urbanity and sophistication (his familiarity with the myth of Sigfried and Broomhilda from German mythology is one example) serve multiple purposes. One is to present him as the sharpest contrast possible to the buffoonish slave owners whose ignorance is one of many rebukes of slavery. The very first two slave owners Schultz meets, the Speck brothers, are such simpletons they can't understand much of what Schultz says.


So, I wish to parley with you.


Speak English!


Oh, I'm sorry. Please forgive me, it is a second language.

The joke, of course, is that Schultz has better command of English, his second language, than the Speck brothers.

Spencer Bennett and his KKK neighbors are no better, the entire meeting they hold over the visibility issue arising from the substandard eyeholes in their Klan masks paints them as so incompetent it serves as a comic deconstruction of the KKK itself (a bit like the angry Hitler). The scene is an amusing subversion of a similar scene from Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and if it feels like trivialization of just how cruel the slave owners could be, Tarantino has a more dangerous depiction awaiting later in the movie.

[As compared to the script, the movie was re-edited to try to maintain some sense of danger through the point when the Klan members are circling the wagon with torches by showing that first and then flashing back to the discussion of the masks, but it just felt like an editing hiccup to me. For a few seconds, I wasn't sure if we'd flashed back or I'd misread the shot sequence.]

Calvin Candie, in contrast to Bennet, is a more complex foil for Schultz. Candie speaks and dresses with the trappings of education and wealth, but the script undermines his phony erudition at every turn.

When Schultz and Django meet Candie for the first time at the Cleopatra Club, they are greeted first by Candie's lawyer Leo Moguy. His lawyer tells Schultz that Candie is "a bit of a Francophile" prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, but when Schultz immediately responds with a phrase of French, the lawyer stops and turns back with a grave expression.


Oh he doesn't speak French. Don't speak French to him, it'll embarrass him.

This foreshadows a later moment in the movie, when Schultz confronts Candie about Alexandre Dumas, who Candie doesn't realize is of African descent. Candie likes to think of himself as learned and sophisticated, but it is all a ruse, one that insults Schultz with its hypocrisy.

Likewise, when Candie gives a long discourse into the physiology of the African-American brain and why they're predisposed to be more submissive, it is horrifying not only because he delivers it after we know he has learned of Schultz and Django's gambit, when we are already on edge for what retaliation he will take, but also because we know every trapping of knowledge in his empire is merely justification for the continued operation of his plantation.

As for the moment when Candie realizes the true intentions of Schultz and Django, notably it's the Uncle Tom character Stephen (Samuel Jackson) who sniffs it out. The scene where Stephen explains what's happening to Candie, Stephen's entire body language and way of speaking shift, and he addresses Candie not from a position of servility but one of intellectual superiority.

Schultz does not begin the movie with the intention of helping Django, but as the movie progresses and he witnesses the horrifying violence perpetrated in the name of slavery, he begins to lose his cool. Candie's fraudulent pedantry is an affront to Schultz's sensibilities, and appropriately, it is that final handshake Candie insists upon to seal the sale of Broomhilda that pushes Schultz over the edge. The handshake, that cultural gesture of integrity, is perverted by Candie's moral failings, and it serves as a foil to the earlier handshake between Schultz and Django, a more honorable instance.

It is the one time Schultz loses his cool and operates on emotion rather than under the auspices of the law, and it costs him his life. All throughout the movie, Schultz has meted out justice under the protection of court orders, but in Candie and slavery he encounters a criminal and an institution operating freely within the law. And so he shoots Candie down in cold blood. The law can't level the scales of justice, and so Schultz, and then Django, turn to vigilantism to exact revenge.

Jamie Foxx's performance didn't seize me immediately the way Waltz and Dicaprio's did, but his performance is by its very nature a slower build, and the journey Django takes is not as simple a hero's arc as many. We see him, throughout the movie, absorbing the lessons of his spiritual mentor Schultz.

At one point, he shows he has internalized the lessons better than Schultz himself. When Candie is about to set the dogs loose on runaway Mandingo fighter D'Artagnan, Schultz offers to purchase D'Artagnan's freedom for $500. But Django, having been told earlier by Schultz to play the part of a black slave owner, stops him. Schultz has broken character, but Django almost plays his part with too much zeal ("He is a rambunctious sort, ain't he?" says Candie earlier when Django yells at a few slaves on the road to Candyland). In watching D'Artagnan be ripped apart by dogs while sitting placidly on his horse, Django shows he's understood the costs of his quest. These are the costs forced upon him by the institution, and he is prepared to bear them.

The latter third of the movie is the weakest, and part of that is the absence of Schultz, and part of it is the predictability of the closing of the loop of revenge. Earlier, Django is shown practicing his shooting on a snowman (I don't think it's coincidence that he hones his craft on a "white" man), but we never see any struggle. He is a shooting prodigy fully formed, and Schultz's comment in the movie is something like, "The kid's a natural." (I'm working from memory so I may have misheard). So when he wreaks his revenge, there is little suspense. The enemies are like targets at a carnival shooting gallery.

[Note that in the script (PDF), there's a hint that Django has a natural talent for shooting but needed the practice to learn and perfect the craft. Even before Django practices on the snowman, there is a scene "to be improvised (more or less), where Dr. Schultz teaches Django how to draw and shoot the pistol in the holster at his hip. By the end of the scene, after trial and error, we see Django's going to be good at this." Broomhilda's role is more substantial in the script as well, and it will be interesting to see if the DVD release comes with a director's cut.]

The scene in which Quentin Tarantino himself appears with an inexplicable Australian accent is so odd it throws the viewer completely out of the movie. For a moment, we were all just people in theater seats, giggling and glancing at each other in disbelief.

What I was supposed to feel at the end, with Django prancing on his horse and Kerry Washington clasping her hands in glee, is triumph, but what I actually felt was much more hollow. It is a completion of a victorious rise for Django, from the slave who was trying not to freeze to death, wearing only a cloak, to a man dressed like a dandy and showing off for his girl on a horse, but the end of his journey is anticlimactic. The film fantasy mode that Tarantino operates in makes this movie impervious to criticisms of its moral substance, but it also muffles the sense of wider social resonance.

It's too bad because for most of the movie, we're alive to Tarantino's work in a way that makes it fun to watch with a packed house. The musical cues, as always, are perfectly timed and carefully chosen. He had the discipline to leave out this great track from Frank Ocean that, for all its charms, didn't fit in, but he still managed to squeeze in unexpected gems like "I Got a Name" by Jim Croce. He has Robert Richardson drop in the occasional hand-pulled snap zoom, a moment of communal fun for cinematographer and audience.

Tarantino is that fun, cool, but slightly inappropriate uncle, always the life of the party, ready to greet and ward off any imminent solemnity with a clever quip. It's a lot of fun as long as you're in the mood to go along for the ride.