Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, begins “somewhere in Texas, 1858.” A quirky German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) stops a traveling band of slave traders to buy Django (Jamie Foxx). Turns out Schultz is a bounty hunter, and Django can identify a troupe of three brothers with bounties on their heads. After Django turns out to be a natural at shooting people, Schultz offers him a bargain: work with him through the winter for a third of their return, and at the end Schultz will go with Django to Mississippi to help find his wife, Broomhilda, who’s been sold to a notorious plantation there.
To recount the film’s underdeveloped themes would be an exercise in extension, not exegesis. The obvious themes of racism and revenge, culled from a vague sense of American history, are more relied on than created by the writing. The innovation of bringing a German into the foray–who can profess surprise at America’s “peculiar institution” while still profiting from it, by refusing to release Django immediately–was flimsy, and seemed some kind of subconscious apologia for the depiction of Germans in Inglorious Basterds. While nineteenth century Germany had colonialist and racist baggage of its own, Dr. Schultz anachronistically marvels at American racism even as he profits from it.
Indeed, much has already been made of the film’s trafficking in unsurprising racial stereotypes. Django’s limited dialogue for the bulk of the movie seems based on the notion that a slave only begins acquiring knowledge the moment he is released from bondage. Early exchanges between Django and Schultz are like a tired interrogation. “Could you recognize them?” “Yes.” “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?” “No.”
My problem with this kind of exchange is creative first, and only political second. By denying Django knowledge and agency, Tarantino denies his film a dynamic character. And by having Schultz constantly (and correctly) assume Django is dumb, the dialogue gets djumbed down not just for the freedman Django but for this tired audience member as well–I came prepared for rapid-fire dialogue about politics and culture and violence and loyalty, not a dozen tired lines wasted on “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?”
As the thematically underdeveloped dialogue washed over the theater, I tried to remember what I usually love about Tarantino’s movies, what about them makes me laugh, squirm, and gasp (in awe and in disgust) all at once. Here’s what I came up with (and I’m interested to hear if you have other reasons for QT fan-dom):
1. Witty, culturally suprising dialogue between multiple clashing characters with opposing views and divergent ways of speaking and being (i.e., the opening scenes of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, in which groups of gangsters talk animatedly about Madonna and Big Macs, respectively);
2) The alternating normalization through dialogue and fetishization through violence of counter- or sub-cultural members of society (i.e., how that opening scene casual banter in Pulp Fiction is followed by another scene where the same characters perform highly stylized violence in a drab apartment populated by low level frat-boy drug dealers);
3) The potentially explosive agency of multiple armed and verbose characters at cross-purposes–I’m thinking here of climaxes in other films: Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo finally reckoning with her ex-husband Bill at the end of Kill Bill 2, when she’s spent two films trying to kill him, or the awesome scene near the end of Pulp Fiction when Samuel Jackson’s Jules has to talk down a couple of armed lovers trying to rob a diner during breakfast.
4) The above all contribute to Tarantino’s trademark, the surprising timing and juxtaposition of violence, comedy, and drama–I will never forget laughing out loud when Jules and Vincent Vega accidentally shoot a hostage in the back of their car–“You shot Marvin!”–and then wondering how a murder could possibly have made me laugh.
5) Finally, there’s the visual spectacle of ninja-like warriors displaced into foreign cultural milieu: Vincent Vega dancing at a L.A. 50’s themed bar, Uma Thurman in a yellow track suit with a samurai sword in the snow, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) in the film projection room with designs to kill Hitler.
Always outlaws, Tarantino’s characters maintain the samurai’s code of violence and honor within the modern underworlds in which they operate. As such, the decision to make a Western about bounty hunters in the antebellum south is ambitious, but fitting for Tarantino’s sensibilities. Many Westerns begin, as Django Unchained does, “somewhere in Texas” before the start of the Civil War. While the traditional Western stays there, pushing the frontier, the law, and notions of morality and whiteness Westward, Tarantino’s main cultural innovation in his new film is to turn his protagonists back east. As they ride (incredibly quickly) from Texas to Tennessee, dragging the slave Django back into a land of laws which enslave black bodies like his, Tarantino reminds us that the old Westerns promote a nostalgia for the racist laws the frontier pushed west.
Yes, what is missing from this film isthe sense of surprise that characterizes all of my list items above. Django ain’t surprising. The film’s main refrain–echoed by Jamie Foxx in promotional press–is how fun it is for a slave to kill white people. Oh, bore me some more. Revenge fantasies are fine–Tarantino’s made his name on them–but at least dress it up with some creativity. The new film’s mild racism and its poor writing are related: think of Inglorious Basterds, where the titular Basterds are a troupe of Jewish-American soldiers (including one called the Bear Jew) who hunt Nazis for scalps and carve swastikas on survivors’ foreheads. That’s an explicitly anti-racist take on WWII where Jews are recast from sniveling paupers to strong warriors, and where violence is vindictive but also creative and funny by drawing on counter-racist tropes of Jews as gold-wearing guidos and baseball successes. If I make one political speculation here it’s this: in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino and his producers show far more concern for celebrating Jewish strength and independence–and explicitly avoiding the depiction of their pain–than they do for African-Americans in Django Unchained. In this new film, black bodies are routinely brutalized on screen and there are only two black characters with real lines, both men, and only one a hero. No troupe of revisionist black heroes here: most of the slaves in the film are silent: literally dumb. It’s as though faced with the enormous thematic universe of American slavery and plantations and bodies-for-cash, Tarantino thought he didn’t have to do any interpretive work himself. The white people are either evil and racist, or conflicted and complacent; the slaves are stupid, angry, or race traitors.
The Western turned eastward is the film’s only surprise, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Monsieur Candie its only outstanding performer– and it’s a testament to DiCaprio’s skill that he could fashion such an outstanding villain out of the tired trappings of slaveholder’s apologia. Confusing structure, underdeveloped themes, reliance on assumption. Some laughs, interesting visuals. Grade: Blech.