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Django Unchained - Film Review

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by Emu Byron (subscribe)
writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published February 1st 2013
Django Unchained Decoded

Broomhilda, the daughter of Wotan, highest of the ancient Germanic Deities, did something bad for which her father decided to punish her. He placed her atop a Mountain, guarded by a Dragon, and surrounded the top of the mountain with a ring of eternal Hellfire. Broomhilda's only hope now lay in a hero (Siegfried), coming to her rescue"

With these words, the wily Dr. Schultz, decides to embark on Django's fairy tale mission, and thereby ensures his own redemption.

For Django (played by Jamie Foxx), the narrative meaning with which Dr. Schultz provides the missing pieces of his life symbolised by his separation from his slave/wife, broomhilda Von Shaft (played by Kerry Washington) - means salvation, not redemption: the mythic opportunity to become 'Prometheus', shed his chains, and rescue his fate damsel in distress mother of the race trial by ordeal!

These are the basic elements, mythical, religious and make-believe, that motivate the plot of Quentin Tarantino's latest offering to audiences, who love him for his unique brand of violence. On the one hand, a western melodrama set in the deep slave-owning South with a simple brutal theme of revenge; on the other, a postmodern pastiche of different forms and mediums which engages with this dark part of America's past and manages to tweak current ancestral fears and residual bad faith in the American psyche in addition to the flashes of radical satire that it dishes out to white and black audiences alike.

The central device which sets the plot in motion is unquestionably the transformation of Django from black slave in chains into bounty hunter and expert gunslinger a transformation which has implications for the whole moral order of white southern supremacy and race relations in general.

The transformation however is not possible without the direct intervention of Dr. King Shultz (bounty-hunter, played by Christopher Waltz), who represents the moral ambiguity of the quintessential Tarantinean hero, a fact insisted upon by the pop-cultural 'cross-referencing' of the postmodern canon to which this film belongs.

In this case, to the 'Spaghetti Western' and the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film by the same title ('Django') in particular, which remind audiences that there is essentially no difference between the typical Tarantinean hero and the quintessential 'Spaghetti Western' hero (exemplified by Franco Nero here): "Evil bastards motivated by pure self interest who are capable of occasional acts of goodness".

The 1966 film remained banned in Britain until 1993 on account of its reputation as 'one of the world's most violent'.

The same cross referencing underscores the fact that the moral universe in which Django is called to act is also the moral world of Dr. Schultz: A vale of tears in which there is no goodness, moral ambiguity is the best one can hope to encounter, and in which pure evil, by contrast, does exist.

Cinematographically speaking, this is also Quentin Tarantino's world. In fact, it is the white man's world, and therein the possibility for the various possible interpretations of this film, both radical and conventional.

An unbalanced world in which the rejection of abstract values turns the human capacity for abstract language away from the sublime towards self-interest (no matter how trivial or inconsequential), and humans into clowns, either as passive victims or as guilty agents of self-interest, but always expendable and always in rapport to the capacity of language to tell a lie or tell the truth. Tarantino merely takes this paltry materialistic vision of life and pushes it to its extreme nihilistic conclusion.

This explains the disconcertingly eloquent diction of Tarantino's most lethal killers, and Dr. Schultz' burst of gunfire are usually preceded by bursts of elocution of the highest register! It also explains the casual lack of seriousness with which bodies are dispatched, giving rise to a comedic vision of life and death in which violence is always grotesque, always ludicrous, always theatrical, but almost never 'too much'.

These themes are portrayed in the characterisations of Shultz ('Dr. Shoot', as he is referred to by 'Stephen', Candie's black butler, aka 'snowball', played by Samuel Jackson, during a moment of comic but premonitory misunderstanding); 'Monsieur' Calvin Candie himself ('Plantation owner' and arch villain, played by Leonardo Di Caprio); and in the dialogues that pass between Shultz and Django:

"The difference between a bounty-hunter and a slave-trader is that the first deals in 'corpses for cash', whereas the second deals in 'flesh for cash' ". The question here is which trade is the more 'honest', and in a morally unbalanced world, this question has rich political connotations, both inside and outside the frames of the film.

The bounty-hunter, who makes a living from sanctioned killings, holds the higher moral ground, but only just, as Schultz only knows too well. This claim is refuted when the possibility of collecting a bounty clashes with the 'morality' of shooting the wanted man in front of his child (from a hidden position). The moral dilemma momentarily posed by this scene is quickly resolved in favour of self interest.

Nonetheless the Doctor is on firmer ground than Candie, a refined Francophile who does not speak French. What an oddity? Until you realise that French is the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and Candie, a man, who thinks nothing of letting a runaway slave be eaten alive by a couple of his mastiffs. The whole Southern charm/grace thing (symbolised by Candie's sister 'Lara Lee', played by Laura Cayouette) is revealed as a cruel mask, built on a monstrous lie.

Throughout the film, Tarantino is true to form in his manner of dealing with this question. Truth comes at a price, and always means different things to different people, depending on the type of imbalances that they're trying to redress or intent on maintaining. Whereas it means self destruction for Schultz and trial by ordeal for Django, for Candie, the truth is a lie and he is ruthlessly and completely destroyed for it, in a final hecatomb that Tarantino fans will love.

This eradication would put paid to the story, but Tarantino is an 'enfant terrible' of American cinema, and the end of the story is by no means the end of the subject: there are oblique references to contemporary American culture and its ambiguous claims of racial equality.

The German identity of the bounty hunter (Schultz) and of the active symbolic archetype involved in Django's transformation (the mythical hero 'Siegfried') are both choices which are obviously not intended to pass unnoticed by American audiences, either black or white, and it is obvious that to them too, they will mean different things.

New York Times' reviewer, Tom Carson, has defined the characterisation of 'Stephen', Candie's black butler, as that of a slave "who has internalised the system to the point of being more royalist than the king". But when we see him sit in the leather recliner (before the Master who is standing), swilling a brandy balloon, we are involuntarily reminded of Obama in the White House! If that isn't radical race political commentary, I don't know what is.

Most disquieting is the destruction of the 'Big House' (Anglicised version of the Spanish and Portuguese 'Casa Grande' for a slave operated plantation) which is dynamited at the end of the story. The Big House, as it blows, is oddly reminiscent of the White House.

In the wake of the Newtown School massacre, Tarantino has been obliged to defend the poetics of his particular brand of violence.

I wonder that he's not arrested for the final image in this film. Lucky he lives in the Land of the free!

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When: Now showing
Where: In cinemas
Your Comment
Fantastic Review
by info (score: 0|2) 2442 days ago
Fantastic Review
by info (score: 0|2) 2442 days ago
One of my favourite movies! Love that review :)
by Franz (score: 0|2) 1162 days ago
One of my favourite movies! Love that review :)
by Franz (score: 0|2) 1162 days ago
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