Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Django Unchained

At a pivotal moment in Django Unchained, Django is told to shoot a man in front of the man’s own son. Django hesitates, but Schultz, a bounty hunter for whom he works, reminds him the man is worth $7,000, and he’s a wanted criminal. Well, then. “Like slavery, “ he explains to a man who understands slavery, “it’s a flesh for cash business.” 

Fast forward to a scene where Schultz chides Django for his apparent callousness to the cruelties around him. Django replies, 
“I recall the man who had me kill another man in front of his son.  You said, ‘This is my world, and in my world you gotta’ get dirty. I’m getting dirty.’
At that moment, in spite of the Tarantinoian odds, Django Unchained was primed to show how the journey into moral compromise makes monsters of us all. Instead, blood runs, infernos burn,  and audiences cheer vengeance as everyone just gets a little dirter.  So, do noble ends justify ignoble means, or must both be good? 

In Django Unchained, there really are no moral struggles taking place within the hearts of the key players. You have to fight something in order for there to be a battle. Schultz, Django, and the slavers all seem to agree: the ends justify the means. Some ends are clearly better than others (freeing your wife vs. owning slaves - any disagreement here?) but none of the main characters have any qualms about fully entering into the evil within and around them in order to achieve their goals.

Schultz is a cold-blooded killer who admits he is the moral equivalent of a slave trader – and we are supposed to cheer him as a good guy. If anyone deserves moral kudos, it's Django and his wife, if only because they are the victims and not the perpetrators. Given the chance, though, Django has no qualms about teaming up with a heartless bounty hunter.  

A part of me gets it: in a world without justice or mercy, Django's options are limited. But while his cause may be just, his methods are suspect at best.  When he utters the instantly iconic “I like the way you die, boy!” it's an understandable sentiment.  That does not make it less tragically brutal. 

Django Unchained ended with the hope of a new life for Django and his wife. That was a welcome conclusion. But whenever people pursue revenge rather than justice, they cannot help but enter into darkness. Yes, the world is full of ethical dilemmas, but both the ends and the means matter. When a clever, talented director makes a film that inclines us to cheer for blood-splattered revenge, even the audience enters into a darkness that goes beyond the dimming of theater lights. By the time the credits rolled, the only light that shone into the midnight of moral nihilism was the light flickering from a burning mansion. 

I will give Anthony Lane at the New Yorker the last word on Tarantino:
 "His films continue to be snared in a tangle of morality and style. Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache."

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