Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming film raises ethical questions, and then pointlessly takes a shotgun to them.
Standing before the stars assembled at the New York premiere of his new, proudly controversial film, Quentin Tarantino began with a question.
"You guys ready for some Django Unchained?!"
The screaming query, like so much in Tarantino's latest ahistorical revenge fantasy, assumed a lot of its audience.
The crowd roared. But let's start with the obvious. America was not ready for Django before the mass murder in Newtown, and it's even less ready now. That is a good thing.
During the two hours and forty-five minutes that Tarantino takes to tell this unlikely story—of a freed slave turned freelance bounty hunter on a quest to save his wife—some intriguing ideas do pop up. But like an arrogant professor who can't help insulting his audience, Tarantino's offenses overwhelm his insights.
The problems begin with the script. The n-word is not a bug here. It's a feature. It is the connective tissue of the screenplay. It is the epithet setting the opening scene. It is the relentless insult that follows Django, played with abiding intensity by Jamie Foxx, from slavery to freedom. And it is the recurring personification of the antebellum South's racist hierarchy, as white and black characters alike say they've never seen a (black man) on a horse.
That alone will leave many people cold, even if audiences recall the n-word's ostentatious use in classics like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and, most chillingly, as the trigger of the climactic hostage scene in True Romance, when Dennis Hopper used the word to bait Christopher Walken into a rash murder.
Tarantino, of course, has long argued that his dialogue simply reflects reality. (The Gangsta Rapper Defense.) It is one thing to reflect a tragedy, however, and another to revel in it. And that tick goes way beyond the rhetoric in this movie.
While Django Unchained presents a morally stark universe, where people do and say evil things with no remorse, it also luxuriates in the license that such evil provides.
We are invited to cheer on the slavish killing of men and women, black and white, because they are implicated in an evil institution.
The comparisons to Inglourious Basterds here are unavoidable. Who could begrudge an uprising for freedom, or a squadron of Jewish soldiers seeking justice against Nazis?
Initially, Inglourious Basterds faced a suspicion that the Nazis were used for the same reason they figure prominently in so many video games—they make for "easy" killing. (Many popular American video games are premised on gruesome Nazi hunting, such as Wolfenstein, Battlefield 1942, and the Call of Duty franchise, which has sold over 100 million copies.) In other words, if you want to peddle violence, just find people worth killing.
Back in Germany, however, Tarantino found a way to dodge that bullet.
In a memorable twist, Inglorious Bastards ultimately presented the banality—and even plasticity—of evil. As a villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) turned out to be just a sick operator, not an ideologue. He would do the bidding of anyone in power. That is why Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) famously carved a swastika into Landa's forehead. If Landa wasn't branded with his identity, he would have easily discarded it, and become something else.
Django Unchained does not fiddle with such complexities.
Django is fighting for his life against slavery, torture, rape, and murder, arming him with a moral clearance to go on a killing spree that would make those video game manufacturers blush. This is one freed slave against an army— "Slavery Scarface," as The Daily Show writer Travon Free put it. The spectacle is more like pornographic violence than a dénouement, and even if the corpses are not total innocents, the nation's tolerance for wanton, mass shootings is quite low right now.
The film is more enlightening, however, when it challenges the way violence is typically legitimized.
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the fastidious dentist who rescues Django, illustrates the law's tenuous hold on regulating "just" killings. Schultz rushes into a town, as a stranger, and kills people. It looks like murder to anyone watching.
When the authorities arrive, however, Schultz delightfully reveals himself as an undercover bounty hunter. The shift confounds both audiences—within the movie and the theater—as Schultz suddenly morphs from criminal to cop, all by waving a court order. Does a piece of paper from the government really make a street killing legitimate?
The scene is a gripping illustration of the tension in any state's monopoly over force. Max Weber, the pioneering sociologist, proposed that such a monopoly requires legitimacy, which is certainly absent for a government based on slavery. Django's killing spree invokes legitimacy from another classic legal principle—self-defense—but eventually discards it, as he guns down the unarmed, and women, and even a slave.
The film unloads a series of these reversals, from victim to predator, criminal to cop and, yes, chained, unchained, and back in chains again. With very little context or ethics, however, the twists feel more like showmanship than a coherent story. There is nothing to be gained from sanitizing our nation's violent, racist history, to be sure, but Tarantino has shown that sensationalizing it is not worthwhile, either. That is unfortunate, because Django Unchained ultimately boils down to a tragedy in search of a point.