Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is an entertaining, emotionally engaging, and tightly-knit film that I found thoroughly enjoyable…until the film began to wallow in a pool of its own blood and took 45 more minutes to die, sputtering and coughing until its bitter end. With a smart script and multi-layered characters supported by stunning cinematography and an endearingly eclectic soundtrack, “Django” succeeds in striking Tarantino’s trademark balance between the farcical and the serious. The rapport between Christoph Waltz, as quippy dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, and Jamie Foxx, as Django, the slave whom Schultz rescues and turns into his protégé, provides the center of gravity for the entire film, and Samuel L. Jackson kills it as Stephen, the sinister slave butler in the service of nefarious plantation owner Calvin Candie (a solid but uninspiring Leonardo DiCaprio).
The film reaches its climax in an edge-of-your-seat scene at Candie’s plantation, ‘Candieland’, when Schultz and Django are just about to succeed in their covert plan to rescue Django’s wife, a slave of Candie’s (played by a lovely and initially great Kerry Washington, but who pushes out anguished tears so constantly that I lost all sympathy for her in hour 2 of the film). It seems that all has been resolved, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow. Is there going to be a Tarantino movie that doesn’t end in a massacre?’ I was excited by this prospect– all the film needed in order to end gracefully was a handshake. But of course, it didn’t end that way. Rather, guns were whipped out, triggers were pulled, and soon enough, the entire ‘Big House’ of the plantation was steeped in blood. And that’s where I thought the movie went irretrievably downhill.
What I had admired in the use of violence in the film up to that point, and often admire in Tarantino’s films, was that Tarantino spared his viewers none of the gory reality of violence. Rather than desensitize the viewers with James Bond-style sequences in which ‘bad guys’ are shot down without a second glance, Tarantino’s violent sequences are messy, gritty, and often, as a result, emotionally wrenching. Although the use of ultra-violence in Tarantino’s has been the subject of criticism for decades, I think that there are many cases in his films, “Django” in particular, in which it is used to great effect. A scene in “Django” in which two black ‘mandingo’ fighters, or male slaves forced to manually fight, in this case to the death, in a sort of cross between gladiatorial battle and a cock fight, uses gruesome gore to reveal the horrifying brutality and dehumanization of treatment of slaves in nineteenth-century America. The scene left me with a queasy feeling of moral wrong and sadness, which is the kind of feeling I think some violence in films should leave one with (rather than a victorious ‘we got him!’ in the wake of shooting someone down characteristic of violent scenes that glorify killing in a dangerous repetition of good guy-bad guy ideology). So too a scene in which a male slave is punished for trying to run away from Candieland by being torn to shreds by a pack of dogs. This agonizing scene becomes a deeply affecting image not only for the audience watching the film but also for Schultz within it, as we see him compulsively re-imagining it later that night while being entertained by Candie.
However, the poignancy of much of the violence up until the climax of the film (which I would argue is the moment at which Schultz decides to walk over to Candie, rather than the ensuing moment in which he shoots Candie) is retrospectively weakened by the massacre at Candie’s plantation house that follows. Django ruthlessly shoots what seems like dozens of white inhabitants of the plantation. And this is the element that I find troublesome not only with respect to Tarantino’s use of violence, but regarding the majority of filmic representations of violence in general: namely, that total destruction of a perceived enemy is sought and pursued until the bitter end. This desire for total annihilation, often in the form of massacre, is a deeply troubling element in filmic violence that speaks to a violent use of violence; in other words, to the deeply rooted impulses that lead to violence both on and off screen. “Django Unchained” is a movie about slavery that takes place two years before the Civil War began; I think it would have been so much more meaningful if the movie had ended with Django and Schultz leaving Candieland without massacring its inhabitants. Such a refraining from action on their part would have left the viewer with an ominous sense that the cruel structure of the Candieland plantation would continue. This ending would have been far more unsettling despite the fact that it would end on the surface in the protagonists having finally gotten what they wanted. But it seems that these days, partial violence is not an option in film. Why this obsessive need for absolute annihilation?
The later Freud talked about a ‘death drive’ or ‘death instinct’ (Todestrieb in German), although exactly what exactly he thought was the source of this death drive remains disputed. (For instance, is it a biological ‘instinct’? A tendency in culture? Etc.) I am not interested in arguing about origins of such a ‘drive,’ though I think it would be highly dubious to argue for one in a biological vein. However, I am interested in the way that the ‘death drive’ might be a useful framework for explaining the need for total annihilation in filmic violence. According to Freud, the Todestrieb is a destructive and catabolic impulse that manifests in a ‘repetition compulsion’ (see Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for Freud’s primary account of the ‘death drive’). I think that this is helpful for understanding why so many filmmakers insist on leaving their viewers with total extermination of the ‘enemy’: so much of filmic violence is driven by the impulse to kill, over and over again, eventually stamping out the ‘enemy’ altogether with brutal completeness. Perhaps this is even intended to give the viewer a catharsis: ironically, it is ruthless massacre that has become the present-day action film’s version of an ending that comes tied up in a bow. Tarantino clearly felt that ending “Django” without such a bloodbath was insufficient. Could this be because an action film today would feel as incomplete without one as a romantic comedy from the 1940s would feel without an impassioned kiss at the end?
It was this sacrifice of the movie for the sake of total violence at the end that felt dishonest and dissatisfying to me. The delicate balance of realism and farce that so beautifully ran through “Django” was compromised at the moment when Schultz shot Candie, and the killing spree that ensued in fact became a sacrifice of the movie itself: the sacrifice of the artwork to the impulse for annihilation. If it weren’t for that last 45 or so minutes of the film, “Django” would certainly have been a top 3 favorite film of the year. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend seeing it.
Also, watching this absurd news clip of Tarantino flipping out yesterday.
And I highly suggest this incisive review of the film from The Feminist Wire.