© 2013 by James Clark
We can always count on Quentin Tarantino to challenge us with a daring film. Hitherto the dare concerned digesting heavy odds weighing upon integrity massively at odds with those solaces and supports which have served for thousands of years. Lurking within a foreground of conflict so fulsome as to convey an Armageddon of deliverance against adversaries failing to attain to human stature, the films prior to Django Unchained (2012) have eked out a substratum of intimations of expansiveness soundly crushed by inertia of one’s own sensibility as augmented by thus twisted billions violently cleaving to mores conjured from out of disinclination to get real. Tarantino’s restless vision has, with the movie up for grabs these days, proceeded to invoke a whole new territory of daring, apropos of managing not to be crushed by the juggernaut of world history. This he accomplishes in rendering for our consideration an adjunct of cancerous tradition, namely, the institution of slavery, specifically in its form of Black slavery in the early years of America.
Django Unchained presents for us the dismaying and dangerous precinct that was the South in the era of slavery. At the same time, it draws us into the even more dismaying and dangerous precinct of latter day rational civilization (the lady of a house in the swampy periphery of a Mississippi plantation finds satisfaction [or at least diversion] in viewing through a stereoscope that centre of ancient Greek glory, the Pantheon) metaphorically being a thrilling thing to trash. Consequently, our consideration of this brilliant study of violence must try to measure its provision for the wider context of that conflict, intrinsic to not simply American and not simply the rest of the world’s population, but intrinsic to nature itself.
There is a scene at the Mississippi hot spot, where the guiding light for the employment of the dubious men folk related to that student of Greek civilization, and the master of a domain reaching far beyond agriculture, namely, Calvin Candie, confronts a pair of challenging dinner guests with his slant upon the rationality of owning and using slaves. His startlingly destructive consumption of that situation dovetails with a thesis in phrenology to the effect that three “dimples” in the skull of all Blacks reside at the site of the brain generating servility, whereas those same marks touch upon the creative aspect of the brains of Whites. (Solid rationalists, Newton and Galileo, are cited by him as unequivocal giants of discernment.) That stab at empirical science serves to confirm a stream of institutional dominance infected, in Candie’s case, with improvisations speaking to a rabidly impoverished sensual exigency. His so-called Candieland is awash in the feline dandy’s sweet tooth for cultivating and convening gladiatorial, bare-handed battles to the death (Mandingos) between muscular field hands. (He and his sister hover about a strangely infantile brush of affection.) The episode of this edifying habit we do see takes place in a nearby town, at a venue called The Cleopatra Club (capitalizing on European smarts dominating African sexiness, but unable to stop paying homage to it), where he first meets the visitors. It features arms being noisily broken and a defeated fighter being beaten to death with a hammer, at Candie’s lubricious instigation. Its psychotic concomitants display their entropic core in a moment en route to the bucolic centre of Candie’s kingdom, where a fighter belonging to him has been treed by hounds belonging to the barely sentient family whose better half perused the Pantheon. No longer having any appetite for such forced combat, the fugitive had run away, and now he hopelessly pleads to be respected in that disposition. One of the visitors offers to reimburse the blood-sport speculator, in order to free his animal from that line of work. But his partner quashes that approach, whereupon Candie finds his money’s worth in watching, along with the bayou boys, the dogs tearing his former property to pieces.
Interestingly enough, the guests at that dinner table—a former dentist, now a bounty hunter persistently countering savagery (he it was who tried to save the runaway); and a Black whom he had made a freeman in the course of the latter’s assisting him in identifying a family of murderers—have a lot to resent about Candie, but the roiling of the narrative clearly discloses he is someone who can be profitably bargained with. They are there because the former slave, Django, had been intent on finding his wife, and the vaguely distributed doctor, King Schultz, had seen fit to prepare and assist him in the search—which has led to Candie’s mansion, where the woman in question is consigned to provide “comfort” to the farmer-cum-showman’s steady stream of friends and clients drawn to the opulence and cruelty of those fight nights. They are being forcefully inculcated in Mississippi phrenology because their host has just been apprised that that those odd-balls (masquerading as blue-chip purchasers of Mandingo performers) were in fact only seeking to relieve him of Django’s wife. (Delicate negotiations—a skill King has often effected by way of court documents as to the “dead or alive” conditions regarding his prey—for a commodity named Eskimo Joe comprised a snow-job whereby they would return in a few days with all the legal provisions covered, and hand over the cash—meanwhile having floated the notion that King was very fond of that pretty woman, whom he had brought to his [and Django’s] suite the night before, and that she would be tossed into the mix as a perk.) A Beast is certainly on the scene (a bit like Pink in Reservoir Dogs); but he’s a Beast who relishes the give-and-take of commercial negotiations. His first response to the bad news is, “If it’d been a snake, it’d bit me!” Bringing Django’s wife to the table, he has another hammer in his hand, and threatens to mess up the perk if they don’t hand over the $12,000 they were pretending to invest in Eskimo Joe.
Of course they do. But the always witty and poised King does not run true to form, due to the cumulative, sickening blood-bath (especially the dogs’ feeding frenzy, and the white trash—Candie occupying an intriguingly variable kinship with them—going into paroxysms of glee in witnessing life reduced to brutality), brought too close for comfort by the hammer at her head. King coldly retires to an adjacent room, Candie bantering, “You’re just mad I got the better of you!” They sign the woman’s freedom certificate, and the effusive host tells the big-spender, “A pleasure doin’ business with y’all!” King reaches back, not only to the devoured victim’s name, D’Artagnan, but to an associate of the Master telling him that Candie was “a bit of a Francophile,” in keeping with his supposedly advanced rationalism. He sniffs pedantically, “Dumas would not have approved” of the slaughter. In response to Candie’s supposing that Dumas [whoever he was] was a “Nigger lover,” the proud erudite scores a cheap point in noting, “He was Black.” Candie counters by insisting they shake hands, adding that no Mississippi transaction is complete without that step. King, visibly out of control, blusters about that idea, and when his enemy persists he rushes up to him, as if to capitulate, and shoots him with a miniature pistol, through his neat little boutonniere. He quietly tells Django and us, “I couldn’t resist.”
The paucity of blood leaving Candie’s chest is quickly compensated. King is blown away by a member of the late bon vivant’s little army, wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Django gets his hands on the rifleman’s pistol and at point-blank opens quite a hole in his chest. Thence begins an almost astronomical disturbance of the peace, such as it was. The scene at the dinner table had disclosed King and Django sitting there, as though in a pressure cooker, as the rationalist cited (and displayed) the Black woman’s scars on her back from whippings courtesy of that master race, and the supposed sub-human subservience of the victim (and Django). The tiny blast from King to Candie represents a (questionable) release of that tension. But the slaughter of a goodly percentage of Candie’s retinue takes us far beyond the contretemps with the wordy slaver. Getting his hands on that truncated shotgun, Django delivers to the local king’s followers a shredding of flesh reminiscent of what the dogs did to the retired fighter. (One hapless clodhopper gets carved out at close range, and, as he screams in pain, Django [who had in the early days with King trained long and hard for extreme proficiency in marksmanship, learning apace that being a dead-eye addressed agendas over and above picking off outlaws with a price on their head] uses him as a sort of sandbag from which to mutilate the great unwashed (many of whom coming to be positioned by the railings of an upstairs walkway—thus giving us a reprise of the Crazy 88, in Kill Bill. Several of Django’s opponents add to the bloody porousness of that [in his eyes, questionably human] shield, giving his body the look of a fiercely boiling pot of pasta sauce—the Spaghetti-Western tradition, including its music, salient in this work.)
The denouement of this battle differs pointedly from that of the (temporary) satisfaction of Beatrix who, as you’ll recall, wipes out the entire 88 mob down to the last entrails. Django’s is a markedly more nuanced, more self-questioningly sensual Beauty than hers. (First and foremost, he has been primed by the [usually] wise King to play “parts” as the means to effective incursions into disgustingly unforthcoming precincts.) One of the Crazies thinks to put a pistol to the $12,000-prize’s head and Django has to surrender his weapons and submit to a spate of indignities at the hands of extremely resentful adversaries. They ship him off to a mining career, but en route, he convinces a trio of Neanderthal shippers (one of whom rather tentatively played by Tarantino himself, seemingly putting a Candie spin on being a dolt) that some easy bounty is nearby, he kills them, returns to the plantation, and more extermination comes about, including a more crystalline and provocative establishment of the trickiness (Beatrix’s name signalling a lacuna for her in the matter of such problematics) of our current Beauty’s cutting down stunned little honkies as if they were weeds. His first stop is the all-purpose room of the swamp-dwellers (a significant percentage, as it happens, of the surviving 88), where the Pantheon is being enjoyed as far as possible. Django puts them all away, as if they were midway targets. Then he finds Schultz’s body and the affidavits as to his and his wife’s being free; before leaving his friend’s body he kisses his own hand and places it on the regal head. He finds his wife, lying terrified on a bed in an outbuilding, and their reunion is regally restrained and gentle. The funeral for the Lost Opportunity has been underway, and, as the greatly reduced complement of mourners returns to the Beast’s palace, Django, now playing the part of a Beast, as conceived from having had a fill of irrevocable vermin, proceeds to slaughter them from that vantage point so useful to the 88. The guy who was a second away from castrating him (called off in favor of the more excruciating punishment of being relentlessly worked to death) gets some peripheral disintegration, screams loudly and has his head blown off to shut him up. The gleeful reaper tells a couple of women kitchen slaves he grants freedom to, to say good bye to Candie’s sister (one of the brains behind the shortened mining career), and as they head for one doorway, he pops her off through another doorway, as though she were a tin can. The elderly boss slave, Stephen, who had alerted his master to the visitors’ flimflam, and who relished conveying to Django that he would live henceforth and die with complete degradation, comes in singing, “In the sweet bye and bye/We will rest on that beautiful shore…” Django is pleased to inform him he’s headed there a lot sooner than he expected, kneecaps him, delights in hearing him scream and declaring that Candieland will outlive him, lights a wick of dynamite and goes out to the yard to watch the place loudly become countless shards of fire. Before heading on horseback with his wife, for what King had termed, “…a more enlightened area of the United States…” Django puts the Palomino he had lifted from the mining detail through some will-o’- the-wisp spins and slow high-stepping and stutter-steps, exactly the sort of Ballroom malarkey Roy Rogers—whose image was a mockery to Beatrix—would use to celebrate yet another easy win for good over evil. Before disappearing in a surge of Motown, he smiles and calls her “Little Trouble;” and she returns the compliment, calling him, “Big Trouble.” The lyrics run, “He’s always cool, he’s the best…” They form a continuity with something he “couldn’t resist,” namely gloating to Stephen, “I’m that one Nigger in 10,000!” Hence we’re saddled with a Beast far more difficult to fathom than Cocteau’s prototype. (And he’s running with a Beauty, who, for all her powers of endurance and affection, is unproven as a force of equilibrium. The Minnie Mouse gesture of plugging her ears and flashing a cute smile in face of the firebomb is not encouraging.)
On first beholding Django in his role of being so callous toward enslaved Blacks and so insultingly fearless toward his 88’s, Candie shone with delight and called out, “He’s one Nigger in 10,000!” (The briefest of flashbacks has him telling the guests, “There are specimens who overturn the [phrenological] determinants. And they’ll be more frequent in the future!”) That was perhaps an understatement; but the point is lodged that we are confronted by a super-physical figure disadvantaged, marginalized, maligned and endangered not only by race but by the quality of his consciousness, his sensual sensibility over and above his historical status as livestock. Candie—his first name is Calvin—ever the traditionalist when the chips are down, would fetch around for some crudely material (crudely rational) basis to account for, as he puts it, the “rambunctious” aspect of an entity that should, by sacred authority, be subservient. The more than far-fetched, singlehanded pulverization of Candieland traces to the looming defeat of the South and its overt brand of slavery (the narrative takes place in 1858). But, far more interestingly, it takes into account that other, far less celebrated brand of enslavement, to massive compromise by gross powers in effect since long before the slave trade in the United States. Django Unchained is, in the last analysis, about primordial outrage with a far more benign face than that of Mississippi miscreants, and as such it addresses a very different order of reflection from that of rational (religion and science inspired) morality, an order of reflection which puts the non-African segment of the audience in the driver’s seat, not that of a passenger, however agitated. Its take upon conflict with the salt of the earth leaves, of course, something to be desired. But its sensational and heart-gripping exposure of the necessity of conflict is most remarkable, and endows this work with compelling problematical suspense. The key to making headway with this nightmare, to tempering the extermination mode of the film’s surface, lies in the passage preceding the eradication of the puerile constituents of Candieland.
Seen by us till now as a passive and errant figure, Dr. King Schultz comprises the initial protagonist of the film, generating both contrarian disturbance and sang froid that intriguingly keys the narrative for vastly unorthodox discoveries. A sort of horse and buggy wheeler-dealer within the opportunistic and dangerous business of killing killers, he has, at the outset, hunted down Django being taken, along with a few others, to be sold at a market in Texas (and made to shuffle like Mandarin ladies, by virtue of the shackles impeding the prospect of vigorous strides), because his intelligence has informed him that that hardly free agent can be useful to his taking on a trio of brothers he does not know by sight, going by the bemusing name, Brittle. The Brittles had played a part in Django’s former life on a plantation where he and his wife worked—the boys being part of the place’s security force and loving their work of whipping, among others, the young couple for attempting to become free by simply running away. In the course of acquiring his new associate, Schultz evinces kingly qualities in facing down a populace strikingly incompatible with his articulate and codes-indifferent progress. This first scene is most important in vigorously proffering a primal and lethal incompatibility between conventional citizens and those working with a set of priorities leaving them outlaws anywhere they might go. (Tarantino has, with mordant irony instilled his scenario with an agent of the law hugely offside.) The two slavers fit perfectly within the honorific, “good old boys,” gracious as long as the juke box is playing the same song ad infinitum, but tending toward the psychopathic when confronted with the unknown. It’s a cold, dark night, and the jiggly little parade comes upon one of those damn surprises—a distant light and the sound of a wagon advancing. True to form, even before they’ve seen the interruption, they’re salivating to kill. Shotguns cocked, blood-lust in their eyes and voices, one of them roars out, “Who’s that stumbling along in the dark?”—a phrase, as it happens, largely capturing the alien modus operandi. Getting a clear look at the intrusion does nothing to set their minds at ease. There is a shed of sorts, sporting a large-scale model of a molar, erected on its roof. (The moment is, in many ways, about bite.) Schultz, by contrast with the rudeness of that salute, greets them as though it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance, assuring them gently that he’s “a fellow weary traveller,” a plunge into kinship quickly undermined by, in addition to giving his own name, giving that of his horse and describing his intent by way of the far from Texas gambit, “I wish to parley with you…” (“Speak English!” they roar.) Finding Django, and confirming that he will be useful, King gets right down to making the purchase, requesting they prepare a bill of sale. Now, given the dynamics from the outlook of the merchants, it’s a lock they will dis him forever. Those rifles are aimed his way, and he’s directed to get lost. Schultz remonstrates that they’re being unfair, and the boys love to retort, in giving him a few more seconds to leave, empty-handed, “Last chance, Fancy Pants!” Therewith he shoots off the head of one and kills the other’s horse, having it fall on him, to the tune of much anguish and many salty phrases. Schultz directs Django to use the dead man’s coat and horse, and he directs the other former prisoners to deal with the noisy cripple as they like. In a flash, then, we realize that he hates them as much as they formerly hated him. The whiff of venom, exploding thus, provides an intensely incisive touchstone by means of which to fathom the rock and rap fuelled massacres that ensue; and to assimilate the enormity of the task of graceful, sufficing interaction on the basis of a nature never imagined by classical rational civilization.
The trail of the Brittles (that name now more comprehensible in view of an omnipresent volatility) comes down to delineation of Django’s evolution from subservience to formidability, a process with hearty measures of both upside and downside. In return for providing the almost magical King (a surprising Beast; but recall that Cocteau’s Beast was also a bit of a Fancy Pants) with what he lacked and needed, Django (a surprising Beauty; but in time revealing depths of love) becomes the recipient of expert tutelage in maximizing his carnal resources. Their partnership far outlasts the crunching of the Brittles, because both realize that, notwithstanding extraordinary powers, theirs is, largely, a life of “stumbling along in the dark.” After infuriating a Texas town by having a Black ride a horse beside a white man, and then mowing down the Sherriff, and collecting bounty money on his corpse, they get wind of their prey being in Tennessee; and thence begins Django’s training as an actor, playing a part to facilitate finessing stumbling blocks like the good old boys. In order to penetrate the plantation where the Brittle boys are employed, King devises for himself the role of wealthy investor (in cotton), and for Django the role of his valet. Getting to choose his own costume for the show, Django fixes upon a foppish, eighteenth-century design in robin’s egg blue (he is, after all, the Beauty here, tentatively). King stresses that, “During your act, you can never break character.” It might sound like a simple thing to do (on the order of wearing a goofy costume); but, on being shown around while his partner continues to disarm the crusty racist, Big Daddy, who initially tossed some weight about in excoriating them for messing with the hierarchy, Django not only spots the prey savaging the personnel but becomes seared by the recollection of them beating his wife while he pleads with the master to let him take her place. The master gloats, “I like the way you beg, boy!” Breaking character (not for the last time), he sprints over to the two nearby, drills the one reading Scripture in one hand and cracking a whip in the other, takes that whip to lash the other dozens of times, and then, addressing the slaves who have assembled in disbelief at what they’ve just seen, he asks them, “You want to see something?” He picks up the whipped man’s revolver and empties its contents into his head. (This is a line from another film where a generally cool guy goes berserk with a hammer, namely, Nicolas Refn’s Drive. The way King urges, “Play the part, all the way,” reminds me of the old director in Mulholland Drive encouraging Betty, a figure proving not to be up to a nasty abyss.)
King steps in, the third Brittle becomes toast, and, as per the Sherriff, Big Daddy, far from impressed by this anarchy on his picturesque farm, has to fork out the toll. The latter’s retaliation dissolves into marvellous farce, noteworthy as an instalment of wholesale discounting of underachievers, and as a spotlight upon malignant clannishness usually more discreet. The offended (and financially damaged) chieftain leads, under cover of darkness, a party of his vassals to the caravan where those uppity oddballs (this time both horses were introduced by name, by way of anticipating an unnamed but huge specimen coming at the end) are presumably sleeping. We see the indivisible gathering on horseback, pouring down a hill by torchlight, and their Ku Klux Klan bearing is concentrated on an abbreviation of the full ecclesiastical raiment, in the form of what appears to be flour sacks over their head. As they reach the wagon, we hear them burst into complaints that the positioning of the eyeholes is all wrong and that no provision has been made for breathing. The man whose wife has gone to the trouble of doing that craft takes noisy umbrage at this critique; and we see that one of the rednecks ripping off the offending garb is played by Jonah Hill, erstwhile uber-rationalist (in another shaky science) in Moneyball. They’d be dangerous if they weren’t so timorously stupid, and it’s that venom coming from palpably blinded and self-strangled lives that convenes King’s setting off, from a distant vantage point, with a single gunshot report, a big wad of dynamite at the wagon, killing most of the complainers outright. Big Daddy has missed being torched, but they don’t miss gunning him down as he tries to escape and continue his benighted business as usual.
Between the torching of Big Daddy’s empire and the torching of Candieland, King welcomes Django into his efforts on behalf of bounty. That alliance is not formed from out of the need for more firepower, but from the consummate problem-solver’s (a magical Beast, of sorts) being inspired by Django (an affecting Beauty, of sorts) as intent upon rescuing his wife in face of epochal odds. (“I didn’t think you people married,” Schultz had remarked, on learning about his friend’s unsuspected range. Django replies, “We [at least] do.”) The challenge to courage and love emergent in this narrative—and the infrastructure of King’s regal profession—receive accentuation by a conversation between them, not long after the chaos at the molar, concerning the woman’s having been taught to speak German, at a very early age, in order to provide conversational diversion to a German-born (as was Schultz) slaver’s wife. As a result of this role, the girl had been given the German name, Brunhilde, which Schultz is quite eager to explain as tracing to the German legend (closely implicated in that poetic and incendiary repository of German idealism the bounty hunter understood very well) of a Princess imprisoned by the powers-that-be and needing deliverance by the monumental efforts of her lover. Amidst Alpine wintry forests of primeval beauty, which gives access to the sensual homeland of both men, and the crux of their partnership, King imparts to his brave, strong but unfocused associate the ways of proficiency in instruments of death and the ways of pulling the trigger, sentimental concomitants notwithstanding. Signalling a new level of action, they visit another haberdashery, and now Django is dressed lean and mean. And he’s got a new saddle, with a big D on it. This being Tarantino, a D grade is pretty good going, in face of the kind of odds he knows about. This being Tarantino, he cradles their launch to dazzling heights by way of a country-western soundtrack selection, Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” that manages to capture, breathtakingly, the depths of that other legend operative here, that of Beauty and the Beast.
“Who led me down the highway?
Who led me down the highway?
Who lent a hand, so life won’t pass me by?”
Though missing the essential, up-to-the-minute audio component, and the volume, I’m including this clip in hopes of establishing a bit of the all-important visceral design informing the necessary complexities of Django Unchained. The film poses to movie audiences one hell of a learning curve. But it’s far from quantum physics. It’s about what quantum physics doesn’t get. Yet.
Getting to Ground Zero, they find that Brunhilde is not on a picture-perfect promontory, but in a “hot box,” a steaming hole in the ground, serving time for having tried to escape by way of her own inadequate resources. From there, nearly gagging from rage, Django, here occupying the role of hard-bitten warrior expert and already overplaying the kick-ass possibilities with Candie’s whole entourage and with Candie himself—needing to be taken aside by his mentor and warned, “Don’t get so carried away by your reputation,” only to brush aside that sound advice with the bathos-clogged riposte, “It fascinates him”—is the picture of a mass murderer struggling against initiating an Armageddon. Having come so close to (willy-nilly) engineering a cosmic coup and a season of love, the road-warriors taper off. Following through to King of the Cowboys simplism (the Frankie-Laine-like anthem washing over the credits at the outset readying us for flaccid attitude), the film leaves us with a task far more prominently one of wit and agility than a reign of terror. And yet it also establishes a large herd of carnivorous impediments not effectively amenable to wit and its field of love.
King’s wagon came with that big tooth on its roof, an object he used as a safe, holding all his earnings on the trail of bounty. Bite and bounty, their exact constitution and relation a matter of strenuous riding (whereby a measure of irony overtakes the title’s “Unchained”), perhaps well advised to be harbored in the lightheartedness implicit in Trigger’s whimsical dance.