If you’ve been on the internet in the last week, you probably heard of the shocking news that Quentin Tarantino not only completed his new script—a major event in the Hollywood trades— but that it leaked online and, even further, due to that leak was cancelled. It was as recent as November he announced he was making another Western, joking after making one he wanted to make another after learning all the tricks. The Hateful Eight is the title, and after seeing that Gawker had uploaded it (and since took it down), I became curious to see what innovations he’s further made to the Western genre. So, I downloaded it. And, with great restraint, only read about two-thirds, hoping to save some for the cinema if he ever elects to direct it. It’s a great screenplay that won’t be to everyone’s taste, where the script is part stage play and part whodunit where nobody’s actually done anything yet. It’s a ticking bomb plot where you don't know the time of the bomb’s explosion, the placement of the bomb, or who put it there. But it will explode, and you sit figuring out how. Since it was a comparison Tarantino himself invited, I couldn’t help but contrast The Hateful Eight to Django Unchained, and while I read I continued to recall his previous Western, or “Southern” as he calls it, with increasing frequency. So, hungry to revisit and reevaluate Django Unchained, I spent my Saturday night in the man-cave with the Blu-Ray and some homemade popcorn.
Yes, it’s got the score, the blood-gushing shock in the set pieces, the unconventional plotting, and great performances, but what first struck me was, despite its reputation to the contrary, what a linear journey Django’s arc proves to be. Saying linear in Tarantino terms carries different meaning than with other filmmakers, given his iconic implementation of the New Wave Auteur Jean-Luc Godard’s famous phrase: “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” Yes, as a film, Django is Tarantino’s most direct and linear narrative, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that Django’s story has clear steps, as though he’s climbing up the ladder of social hierarchy one step and one scene at a time. The film opens with a montage of enslaved African-American men trekking across epic and beautiful landscapes set to the catchy epic tune of Luis Bacalov’s original Django theme, the original Spaghetti Western from which Django Unchained draws its title.
By contextualizing images of a beaten and broken slave who we know as our soon to be hero with grand vistas and a stirring operatic score, two words come to mind: hero worship. In the context of storytelling, hero worship is how storytellers imbue a mythic quality to certain characters key to the story, a device employed constantly in cinema. Any moment Character A does something impressive and character B sits in awe and admiration, it’s hero worship. But at this stage in the story, Django hasn’t done anything impressive, and thus no awe or admiration is directly earned from viewers. What Tarantino’s doing is setting out Django’s dramatic arc before us, and points to its finish as though it’s Django’s North Star. This where we’ll arrive by the story’s end: Django will have become a gun-slingin’ badass with a mythic persona of such intense fame and profundity he has entire songs devoted to him, where his mere name is a call for celebration. This has several purposes, all of which are vitally important. One is that by juxtaposing Django’s humble beginning with his eventual greatness, viewers already have a credible sense of scale through which to perceive the story.
Two, and this is the more important of the two points, it means it takes to the finale of Django Unchained for Django’s dramatic arc to be fully realized. Meaning, it is not a moment that many audience members and critics preferred the film ended on that happens about thirty minutes before the credits. SPOILERS: One of Django Unchained’s main criticisms, at least in terms of its politics, was that despite Quentin Tarantino babbling about how well his new movie tackles the issue of slavery in the public eye, it took a white man to free a black man, so everything Django does is still tethered to what white people let him do. The final thirty minutes amends this issue. As said above, Django begins the film hardly speaking a word to becoming a brazen pimped out blue-outfit wearing warrior. But for much of the script, he’s second fiddle to Christoph Waltz’s perfectly played Dr. King Shultz. Shultz dies, and Django is re-captured, and sold into slavery. Here’s the kicker: Django then frees himself, completely without the help of any white man, relying on nothing but himself and thus beginning to bring his entire character full circle.
That awkward sequence with Tarantino’s much-derided cameo? It was actually the most important scene in the entire movie- now it’s all Django. This allows Django’s character to begin rising to mythic heights, characterized by epic images such as riding a saddle-less horse, rifle in hand, fiercely charging past a fiery, smoking cabin. We finally see the character Tarantino hints at Django becoming in the opening sequence of the film brought full circle by the final scene. He began the film in chains and ends the film having destroyed the foundation upon which the chains were used. /SPOILESR I’ll concede Django’s the least interesting major character in the film, but because of the way Tarantino crafts the story, he’s also the most emotionally engaging. If there’s a problem with the film’s final half hour, it’s with the pacing, which is always another way of saying the editing. Tarantino’s long time editor Sally Menke passed away in September of 2010 and was replaced by Fred Raskin, who Tarantino knows from working with on Kill Bill. Some feel Django taking the reins on the narrative cripples the finale of the film, but I can’t see how. It’s his movie, and it was from the start.
Here’s a final point many seemingly overlooked. The press made much of Jamie Foxx’s SNL comments about how Django Unchained was a movie about ‘killin’ white folks,” demoting Tarantino’s film from a complex commentary on racial politics to a liberal-fantasy revenge flick. I disagree. If my above argument on Django’s necessary narrative development is a good one, and I believe it is, we can begin to piece together what kind of an argument Tarantino seems to be making. There’s a Marxist bent in how characters are shackled by their own belief systems and world views taking part in their own oppression. Characters often ‘play’ another character within the film, both in terms of actual ‘acting’ and in terms of self-delusion. Shultz for instance becomes marginalized by his penchant for over-scheming, and it’s his flaws that prevent him from achieving his goals. He likes to stay in control and manufactured scenarios where he could. It’s ironic for all his Francophile flamboyance that Calvin Candie’s representative of the most generic sort of figure. He rationalizes the world more than he makes sense of it, keeping an even keel where he’s the most comfortable. This is seen most clearly in his babbling speech about phrenology-- he’s used to his way of living, and he’ll be doggone if anyone challenges it. He’s also a hypocrite, shown by a loosely implied incestuous relationship between him and his sister.
But, the most telling (and written about) contradiction to Calvin Candie’s character is that he’s not the master of his house. It’s Stephen, the house slave. Stephen owns Candie and their relationship is complex, with hints of Stephen acting as a proxy father figure. Stephen’s much smarter and bolder than Candie, and, unlike Candie, doesn’t actually believe his own bullshit. Stephen’s much worse, and represents what Karl Marx outlined as the deepest societal problem in a community. Stephen willingly enslaves himself to a system he at least in principle opposes because it allows him access to riches and wealth he could not touch otherwise. It’s even implied he misrepresents himself to Candie and the other slaves to maintain his dominance, putting on a show as a crippled man when we learn that may not be so. That makes Stephen the film’s true villain, and a viscous one at that. Django’s the only character to genuinely earn his status and achievements, and here we see Tarantino’s argument fully take shape. It took the generosity of a Caucasian figure, one Americans wish the South had many more of during the pre-civil war era during which the film takes place, to unshackle Django from his oppressed status, but it took Django’s perseverance and dignity to triumph and ascend to the powerful figure he becomes in the film’s ending.
It’s up there with Tarantino’s best and is possibly his deepest film, proven all the more by the wealth of other topics the film inspires than merely those discussed here.