Quentin Tarantino's "Django: Unchained" is a great film, but Mark Metcalf says it's difficult to see something so violent in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown.
In the wake of the horrific violence that was, by all appearances, arbitrarily meted out upon five- and six-year-old children and their teachers-turned-defenders in an elementary school in Connecticut just two weeks ago, it is difficult to write about a film like Django: Unchained, which, in the way of so much of the modern culture of the western world, celebrates violence with a kind of glee.
It is a beautifully made film in almost every aspect, from the structure of the story and the obvious joy taken in the many, many creative acts that went into its making to the message about prejudice and racial justice that is so clearly articulated and that each of us should address in our own lives every day. But it loves cinematic violence: the spatter of blood, the thud of bullet into flesh, the twitch throughout the body as more and more bullets penetrate and pass on through.
In the hands of Quentin Tarantino it is comic Grand Guignol: horror passed on through the fire to humor. It is an ancient theatrical tradition, but at this point in time, in this culture, where aberrant incidences of erratic violence are becoming almost commonplace, it is difficult to take.
Shakespeare says in Hamlet that the function of the artist is to “hold the mirror up to nature,” so in many ways Tarantino’s fascination with violence, from the highly eroticized slicing off of an ear in Reservoir Dogs to the scalping, the carving, and the operatic finale in flame and gunfire of Inglourious Basterds is a heightened but accurate reflection of our obsession with violence and blood. The issue I struggle with is why are we thus obsessed? And can we turn our attention elsewhere before more and even younger children are massacred by people with nowhere to go and an automatic weapon somewhere near to hand?
Django: Unchained is the story of a slave, a black man, played by Jamie Foxx, in the American South, two years before the Civil War. He is bought, or more accurately, taken violently from his owners by a dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz. Foxx helps Waltz track down three brothers who are wanted for murder and, as a reward, is given his freedom. But freedom for a black man was just a word in the South at that time.
Because the two men like and respect each other and appear to be free of the fear and prejudice that binds most other men, they set out together to find and free the wife of the slave, herself a slave in the employ of Calvin Candie, played with pure delight and venom by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Samuel L. Jackson gives a terrifying performance filled with so much misdirected self-loathing and rage, loyalty to the massa and contempt for the world that his body has become twisted, his eyes bulge, his voice breaks with the strain not just of age but of personal violence endured. It is an iconic performance.
There are several scenes, of which Tarantino has become a master, where tension builds in excruciating baby steps toward what we know is the inevitable violent crescendo. And then there is the blood bath at the end leaving Foxx – the slave, the black man, the last man standing – alone, with his arm around his trembling wife as they watch the white man’s palace burn and explode and turn to ash. A fitting end. Revenge and justice for 400 years of slavery and another 100 as the so called free but still hated and feared “other” in American culture.
Django: Unchained opens Christmas Day, Tuesday, Dec. 25 at the Oriental Theatre. See it and Happy Holidays, but remember the children, remember the slaughtered, and do whatever you can to set it right.