Now that Quentin Tarantino has made a Western, it seems impossible that it should have been his first Western or that it could turn out to be his only Western. Nor is it coincidental, I think, that in Django Unchained, we finally see Tarantino drawing together all of his various strengths in balance instead of competition. I feel no hesitation in saying that this film is his best so far, no doubt thanks in large part to having found a group of leading actors that can do what he needs them to do. Much of why I think these things will be discussed in terms that might spoil the first-time viewing pleasure, so read on advisedly.
Tarantino is first and foremost a cinematic stylist with an exploitation or pulp sensibility. His meta-goal across his oeuvre is to take the “exploitation” cinema that he loved as a youth and infuse it with enough skill and style that it becomes high art on parr with the established masters of cinema. In this goal he has had some successes, most notably Inglorious Basterds, the first film to get him a shot at some Oscars. However, often the experimental qualities of his works, particularly his fragmented narratives, have created internal structural problems within the narratives. Inglorious Basterds is a good example of this too – each individual scene is brilliant, but somehow they are dissonant in tone and construction making the film as a whole a difficult experience to assimilate. For example, it is difficult to reconcile the incredible tension of the opening scene with the manic, almost comic, excesses of the drill-sergeant scene. We have a problem at the heart of the film, that it wishes both to have an Iconic (see Robin d Laws’ website for the specific meaning I have in mind here) hero and a Dramatic story.
Like other stylish directors, Tarantino has a specific range of interests. He is, in simplistic terms, all about Revenge ™. He sees Revenge as a complex activity with complex origins. You can most clearly see this in the fragmentary nature of Pulp Fiction, where all but one of the stories hinge on acts of vengeance, each of which has a complex relation to the other simultaneous acts of revenge. Whether the cycle of revenge ever leads to Justice is a question Tarantino grapples with differently in each film. In Reservoir Dogs, do we believe that Mr Blonde’s excesses are justly resolved? In Pulp Fiction, do we believe that Vincent deserves to be gunned down by Butch? Broadly, justice can look an awful lot like it does in Yojimbo, which is simply that the earth which sprouted the evil has been scorched and salted. In his exploration of this theme, Tarantino is not afraid to go where the material suggests. There is no gently averting the cinematic gaze, and nor is there much by way of diverting a story down a happier line.
On the other side of the equation is the Western. The Western “genre” has meant different things to different people at different times. It is first and foremost a location in space and time, a period variously specified from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s (the Wild Bunch, for example, is set contemporaneous with WWI and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre even later than that). The combination of activities which went on in that period include Indians, Bandits, Cowboys, Railways, Settlers, Gold-mining and gunfights in the streets. All activities which happened, but which take on a more mythological importance in the cinema of the Western.
These ingredients all suggest a certain superset of stories, about the taming of the wild, the clash of individual strong wills with each other and the community, of exploration and of greed. It is open to interpretation, of course, by I see the confluence and convergence of these elements around a nucleus of Justice. Broadly interpreted, the pursuit or absence of justice is present from the oil-exploration epics like War of the Wildcats to revisionist history like Dances with Wolves, although it really finds its clearest and purest expression in the Westerns of Sergio Leone and his protégé, Clint Eastwood.
The layers of reference and pastiche which accrue in the cultural space, and in our common literary/cinematic heritage, make it easy to forget that Sergio Leone was himself a highly stylish director, right on the cutting edge of cinema in his age. His work has been so frequently and extensively recycled in the postmodern space that they are almost lost. They say that it is impossible to go to Paris for the first time – well, I contend it is now impossible to watch A Fistful of Dollars for the first time, so widely spread are its iconic moments. In that film, No-name, decides to accelerate the destruction of the two competing gangster houses in the town – the Baxters and the Rojos. Why does he do this? He claims to see a profit in it, but if you watch closely, that simply isn’t what happens in the film. His “mistake”, if you will call it that, is to interfere with the living arrangements of Ramon, the eldest Rojo brother – freeing his slave mistress, patently out of a sense of justice.
This is the background that Tarantino inherits, plus a lot more which is not so closely of interest to me.
To me, the combination of director and genre suggests a tension as old as drama itself – between Revenge and Justice, a theme first honed into a perfect shape by Aeschylus in his Oresteia. Can you have one without the other, can you have both? The injustice, the prompt for revenge? Slavery, expressed in many different ways throughout the film.
I think that the two central characters tend toward each of these two poles, each of these two perspectives on the situation.
Dr Schultz is a professional mankiller – he tracks down dangerous men, and he kills them for the dead-or-alive reward – but he begins the film acting within the bounds of the law, and he is emotionally affected by the suffering he sees. Christoph Waltz has gotten a reputation for expertly playing the polite-but-dangerous type, since his stand-out performance from Inglourious Basterds, but in this film, I was never afraid of him, because he conveyed to me that this character was a moral man. Yes, he kills people, but he kills bad people, and sure, he profits, but he takes each and every opportunity to do what he perceives as the just thing. He is never cruel, never mean, and never aggressive. I was impressed at how unthreatening he was, for what he was, compared to the Jew-hunting Colonel Landa.
Django, on the other hand, is simply a natural-born killer. He accompanies Dr Schultz, but his motive is revenge; revenge for a lifetime of depredation, of torment, and finally of separation from his wife. He kills without remorse, and without restraint. When he has the chance to kill bad men, he does so with violence beyond the strictly necessary. Jamie Foxx conveyed a bottomless darkness to me, a character for whom there were no limits, only ends to be reached by whatever means.
The first half of the film establishes these two characters, and then the wild card is introduced – Candie, the positively sadistic and maleficent owner of a large plantation that includes Django’s wife. Candie, like Django, is a man without limits or restraint. DiCaprio convinced me that at any moment, he could do anything – and because the director was Quentin Tarantino, I knew that really meant anything. The whole time he was on screen I was tense, waiting for the other bloody shoe to drop, for the ear-slicing, or the raping, or something. When it came, it was a most instructive character study for the three leads – Dr Schultz visibly unable to cope with what was happening, but Candie and Django perfectly composed, perfectly in control. Django, prepared to go to the limit with Candie to prove what a badass he was, no longer “pretending” to be a real villain.
Candie, though, is perfectly within the law, perfectly within his rights, making Dr Schultz a just man in an unjust world. Eventually, he snaps, and Candie pays instantly for his crimes. Queue the retributive blood-bath for which Django is so eminently suited.
In the Oresteia, we see a cycle of injustice broken – out of a vendetta culture, a just society emerges as an act of self-preservation, because society realizes that the cycle of killing is an endless one. In Django Unchained, the ultimate message is that there is no possibility for justice, and so society as it stands must be utterly rooted out and destroyed. Literally nobody from the white society around Django survives – not the just Dr Schultz, not the unjust Candie, not the complicit Stephen. It is simply erased. Revenge is more powerful for Tarantino than justice, as we might have guessed.
What makes this Tarantino’s best and most powerful film is the conviction that it carries, and the coherence with which it is executed. Inglourious Basterds also has its version of absolute evil, and shows it being expunged with prejudice, but the narrative path to get there is tangled by divergent plotlines and subplots. You might ask yourself, for example, just what is accomplished with the lengthy intervention of Captain Archie? He also retained that point of moral ambivalence in the ultimate victory and survival of Colonel Landa, who, in the absolute terms of Tarantino’s consequences, went unpunished. Django Unchained maintains a consistent and purposeful gaze on a single narrative stream.
There are things not to like about the film – there is no female voice of significance within the narrative and Tarantino allows himself a few too many money-shots of various kinds, but these are criteria from outside the work itself. On its own terms, it succeeds perfectly.
I cannot end without reiterating the brilliance of the three leading men. Each of them had a very difficult role to play, and all needed very fine judgement to convey the full significance of their part, and each did superbly. I suppose we’re into 2013 now, but over the last 12 months, only Amour was better (although totally incomparable in any meaningful way).