Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So, I saw "Django Unchained" the other day...

Spoilers for Django Unchained, obviously. 

Holy boy, I expected an entertaining and bloody slavery revenge movie when I went to "Django Unchained" this past weekend. However, I got probably the best movie about slavery in the South that was made about the topic. I haven't seen Lincoln yet, but Django provides a very thoughtful insight as well as tons of blood. This may seem contradictory, but it really works in the context. To examine just how, let's delve into the details.

But before, if you haven't, go see the movie.

The movie itself has a pretty straightforward story: Django was seperated from his wife and wants to get her back, so he jumps at the opportunity of working together with a bounty hunter who takes heart in his quest and aids him. The wife is, of course, with the worst plantation owner there is, so they have to fight a very literal evil plantation owner. The brillance of the movie is in the details of just how they managed to portray certain elements of the movie. Some are in the asthetics, which are a bit of a black empowernment fantasy as Django very pointedly breaks with all the segregation rules the southern (and northern) society have built uo. The other one is in the narrative in the characters.

Even Broomhilda.
Let's first talk about some interesting side notes. As always, Tarantino doesn't give shit about conventions. This is evidenced, for example, in the portrayal of the bounty hunting business. Although it's the thing that empowers Django and the trade that the other main character, King Schulz, has chosen, it's depicted as not exactly heroic. Schulz carries it out in style, but most of the time he simply assassinates his targets to minimize his own risk and then quickly lays down his weapon to hide behind the law that allows him to do what he does. It's interesting that he doesn't at all tough talk, but uses the inherent absurdity of the business to his advantage.

But boy, is it gloriously bloody.

That being sad, let's go to the broader scope. The movie does a great job at ridiculing the white upper class that carries out the oppression of the slaves as well as the utter wretchedness of the overseers and white trash caste. Let's look at these in turns.

First, we have the black guys as the real heroes of the story, of course. Waltz' character King Schultz is not so much the white man enabling the black man to find his true destiny, like it is a prevelant theme in Avatar. He does one thing: he unchains Django. His main contribution is to provide Django with what he needs to develop his own potential, rather than besting him. Django is the better shot, he's more ruthless, he has better self control. In short, he does nearly everything better than Schulz, who prevails in many situations because he is white. Add to that the clever use of music and iconography that shows Django in full power of the situation, and you have a strong message.

Never shoot the messanger.

The depiction of the villains is another interesting thing. Big Daddy and Candy both are dismal figures. They are both incredibly rich, a fortune they gained solely through the merit of birth without any achievement of their own, and they are stupid like a bag of hammers. This becomes especially prevalent in Leonardo di Caprio's character of Candy, who presents himself as a francophile ("Monsieur Candy") without speaking one word French, who hasn't read a single book from his library and who generally doesn't know shit. Candy is also a scholar of ridiculously absurd theories of servility of the black man (it has to do with the situation of bones) and doesn't get anything happening around him. Instead, he's routinely mocked by his servant Stephens and doesn't even know it.

But he sure as hell knows how to light a pipe.
It is also interesting to note that Tarantino deconstructs the archetype of the sophisticated villain. Candy so much wants to be like the Joker or Hans Gruber, just to name two of these tropes, but instead hecomes over as a brutal and sadistic idiot, just like intended. There's nothing clever or sophisticated about Candy. He uses the power that's given to him by birth for his own amusement, which is tasteless and bloody, and doesn't have to do anything real.

Not the Joker.

The same is true for the white trash. They are depicted as just that. They are filthy, scruffy and ugly. They take their self-worth solely from their imagines superiority over the black people, who look more healthy than they do as well as cleaner. The blacks are sweaty, but it's the sweat of hard work. The dirty sweat of the white trash is the one of the sweltering heat in which they whip the black slaves. They are despicable and miserable, mistreated by the same wealthy elite and feeling good about it because they are stationed above the blacks. We also see them just being utterly stupid in the Ku-Klux-Klan-scene, in which they are unable even to produce white hats to conceal themselves and argue about it in the tone of little children. Another fine example is Big Daddy's farm and the argument about how to treat the free Django (not like a white guy, not like a black guy - they settle with treating him like the village idiot).

Not the sharpest tool in the box.

The last thing worth mentioning are the shootouts and the violence. There was much critique hurled at Tarantino for being so violent, which he brushed aside with the argment "that it's fun". While true - the fountains of blood are ridiculous and not at all like anything real - there's also a dimension to it that Tarantino denies talking about. The violence does indeed serve a narrative purpose. Basically, there are two types of violence here: violence against blacks and violence against whites. While the violence against blacks is depicted very somber and surprisingly reserved, never really showing what's going on and therefore increasing the horror, the violence against whites, almost exclusively reserved to the shootouts, is so over the top that one can't help but think thati it's shown from the white's perspective: for them, the idea of a black man shooting whites is so absurd and horrific that they can only see it like that.

Just look at this.

As a side note, Tarantino's latest works - Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained - are both a very interesting experience for me, since both heavily feature Germans as an exotic element in leading roles and story vehicle, and being a German, that has a certain ressonance with me. The German in this particular movie is Christoph Waltz (although, technically, he's Austrian), who plays Dr. Schulz. Him telling the tale of Brunhild and Siegfried really is a nice drop. They should finally come around and make a good movie about the Nibelungs. Just saying. 


  1. Let's forget for a sec that the Brunhild&Siegfried-story told is in fact nothing like the original tale... I liked it, too.
    Great review, I had about the same impressions.

    1. Yeah, well, there was a wall of fire and Brunhild punished by Wotan. Siegfried didn't mind the fire because he bathed in the dragonblood, but the essentials were there. I'd say Schultz omitted much ;)

  2. I agree with most parts of your review apart from the narrative meaning of the two different kinds of violence. This part of the movie didn't work at all for me since it was a huge tone gap. On the one hand Tarantino tries to deliver a fancy super cool vengeance movie with totally over the top violence (like in kill bill) and on the other hand he tries to give his audience a realistic look at the cruelty of slavery. This is like mixing some serious scenes from a concentration camp in inglourious basterds. It makes sense plot wise since both films tell stories about the revenge of the oppressed but it would feel wrong. Just like it felt wrong to see the suffering of the slaves just next to funny gory shoot outs.

  3. I'd love to hear more on how you felt about Inglorious Basterds (or a link if you've written about it in the past). Great Review. Thanks!

    1. Blog's too young for that. But I really liked Inglorious Basterds. What he did with the language alone is outstanding, and just the balls to kill Hitler in a cinema...wow.