Blood erupts from bludgeoned bodies like the murky water of a pond disturbed by tossed stones. It coats the virgin white flowers of a spring meadow when a man on horseback is shot. It is smeared, by a sleezy Leonardo DiCaprio across Kerry Washington’s beautiful and terrified face. One loses track of the body count somewhere in the neighborhood of the second act as one by one, slave owners drop in montage and quick cuts just as fast and Jamie Foxx can pull the trigger.
It would be naïve to react with shock at the overwhelming brutality of a Quentin Tarantino picture, after all without the appropriate amount sadism, murder and racism, viewers would feel somewhat betrayed. Kill Bill: Volume 1 probably had a body count higher than Django, and its most violent scenes took on a (sometimes literally) cartoonish quality. In the same way as Tarantino’s first four films, it existed in a world that was fabricated, representing no particular time-period in a hyper-stylized version of a place (Kurasawa’s Tokyo, Ford’s Texas desert, etc.). With Django and Inglorious Basterds before it, Tarantino has placed the revenge theme in historical context in a way designed to strike a tender chord easily accessible in the American psyche. He has one purpose: to make the viewer feel comfortable with all that blood.
With the exception of a few unfortunate innocents—some “mandingo fighters” and of course, Cristoph Waltz’s smooth talking vigilante—the overwhelming majority of slaughtered souls have one thing in common. They are all ugly, remorseless caricatures who exist in a dimension as emotionally distant as Tarantino’s gorgeous and classic panoramic shots. These guys had it coming, and in this frontier justice, we are meant to delight. But there is tragic miscalculation: The Holocaust and American Slavery remain the two titans of American shame and emotional suffering and continue to affect us all on a personal and visceral level. We don’t want to see these things downgraded to vehicles for style. These topics must be handled with care.
If we are to simply address the ideas of good and evil as stock entities and polarized opposites, it becomes very easy to identify with the dashing, gun-slinger who clearly represents good. Tarantino, the film historian, asks us to consider the Western, the Blaxploitation film and the Revenge Plot as vehicles for this purpose. Of course the characters have limited emotional depth or psychological motivation or fear—they are not meant to represent actual people like you and me, just idealized form. The film explicitly references Seigfried and Broomhilda, but unlike the epic tale, Jamie Foxx’s hero has no tragic flaw. The minute he jumps on a horse, he is unstoppable, unflappable and unrelatable. There is nothing about American slavery as emotionally simple as that.
There is a moment early in the second act where Django is reluctant to kill a target because the man’s son is with him. Convinced by Schultz that this is the job, he finally pulls the trigger, dutiful but reluctant. When later, he poses as a Black slave-trader, he treats the slaves with coldness and brutality. As Schultz questions his behavior, he defiantly references the earlier incident. Is there a moral dilemma here? Maybe Django has actually become the sinister character he is portraying. Maybe there is a deeper, institutionalized self-loathing that is manifest in his treatment of his black brothers who remind him of what he really is. Maybe he is so consumed with personal revenge that it transcends the hatred he feels for the system that brutalized him.
We never find out.
There is no suggestion that any of these potentially meaty themes are resolved or considered as Django systematically liberates Broomhilda and destroys Candieland and virtually everyone in it before riding off to moonlit freedom.
Django is not really engaged with the world that makes up the plot. He is inadequately hurt, enthralled, joyous or reluctant. If you seek to feel some sense of remorse or self-doubt or the sort we all feel every day, than you won’t find it here or in anything this talented auteur has done in fifteen years. Maybe some day.