Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained works on two levels. The surface level is that of a simple revenge flick, of the wronged taking up arms in a mission of retribution. From that point of view, it’s a movie that has been made a hundred times, usually with Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun as he quick draws. The movie works well in that genre. Played straight, it stands with the best of Western vengeance tales, spiced with Tarantino trademarks of ultraviolence, perfect music, and darkly humorous asides. But the fact that this particular version of the Man with No Name is a former slave cannot be overlooked. The implications of that, and the focus of the story on slavery itself, construct the film’s second level and elevate it from effective genre film into something more.
Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic with his take of plantation owner as cruel boy emperor, just this side of Caligula with his slave fights and slightly too familiar affections with his sister. The film highlights what a solid actor DiCaprio is, in ways that his turns as a protagonist in grand historical films have tended to miss. If he doesn’t play the villain again, and often, then he is missing a calling. And of course Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx nail their roles as well, and their chemistry together is superb.
Directors like Tarantino have the advantage in their films of attracting known actors even for the smallest of roles. Recognizable faces pop up in scenes throughout, not in cameos per se since the actor is never positioned to steal the scene, but in the small and critical roles that keep the film moving. It’s a long film, clocking in at two and a half hours, but it’s also the rare long film that never really feels its length. It tells its story in the time it takes to tell it, without any scenes feeling like they are unnecessary, or prompting glances at the watch.
The real beauty of the film though is in its subversion of the typical Western by setting the story in the traditional time, with all the traditional trappings and themes, but pointing its action in the opposite direction. The Western as a genre is older than film, going back to the tail end of the 19th century as the frontier closed and then grew in the eye of imagination.
Westerns have never been about the west, at least in their appeal. The endless pulp novels and frontier paintings of whites under siege did not appeal to the masses in the early twentieth century because they were literally concerned about Indian insurrection on the Great Plains. And certainly as the flow of stories in both print and film did little to slow during the twentieth century, it was something deeper resonating with audiences than the mere surface of interpretation. The Western has always been a peculiarly American meditation on the role of violence in creating civilization in the midst of a savage world.
The staples of the genre are all there in Django Unchained. There is the emphasis on the hard life of the common man, of life on the fringes of society where barbarism and civilization intersect. There’s the feeling that civilization is the source of both salvation and terror. There are places where only the the veneer of civilization has reached, where it is still local violence that guarantees what law and order can be had. Where the unscrupulous govern their own private empires of murder with only the rumor of the power of the state somewhere in the distance. And of course, there is the lone gunfighter, the wandering knight errant, who comes to the town run by thugs in order to set things right with cunning and lead.
None of this description would be out of place setting the stage for a dozen Sergio Leone films, but to make the hero black and the corrupted town a plantation is much more than just an obvious trick. It’s the inversion of a genre. If the frontier is the land of uncivilization, where violence reigns and life is cheap, then it can be argued that the empire of Southern plantations is not just superficially similar, but is precisely the same setting. And so the hero rides out of the west in order to civilize the east.
The film shows slavery without the slightest nostalgia, without any of the compromise that dots so much fiction. There is no decent master here or there. There are no 21st century rationalizations shoehorned into the mouths of the 19th century. No states’ rights bullshit, no helpless shrugging by sympathetic whites who wish they could do something but just cannot figure a way to change an entrenched evil. The film instead presents slavery as naked brutality that can only be conquered by like violence. It’s sentiment right out of Unforgiven, but rendered nearly unrecognizable by virtue of being set in the South instead of the West.
But therein lies the genius. If this wasn’t an open wound after a century and a half, this wouldn’t be remarkable in the least, because such an objectively minuscule shift in setting would make no difference to the audience’s perception. The fact that it does underscores how effective subversion can be, especially because many of those who would otherwise applaud the message that only violence can overthrow violent tyranny, are those same who would argue most strongly that slavery would have died out on its own and that the Civil War was an assault on states’ rights.
In the guise of a pulp revenge fantasy, fueled by the usual flair of Tarantino, Django Unchained obliterates this cognitive disconnect. By constructing Django firmly within the mold of the dark western hero, Tarantino argues that to accept the righteousness of any Eastwood hero is to also acknowledge that the violence that crushed southern slavery was justified. Now that’s a fucking bingo.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.