Saturday, January 5, 2013

A few thoughts on the violence in "Django Unchained"

Part of me has always been skeptical of movie violence. Something feels immoral, or perhaps amoral, about the ways movie protagonists--the characters we sympathize with, or even relate to--deploy righteous violence as a matter of course. Killing is integral to the meanings of so many movies that I'm having a hard time picking only a few examples. I'm thinking of the swaggering, idiotic imperialism of violence in "The Expendables." The joyous violence of "Looper," in which killing seems the logical way to tie up loose threads of the plot. The countless movies, like the two I've just mentioned, in which our protagonist is a murderer by trade.  In movies like these violence does not have consequences beyond those immediate to our hero(ine). Victims do not have families, characters appear in the film just to die (or, rather, to be killed by our hero), and death by gunshot or stabbing is usually a momentary bloodless affair.

Then there's "Django Unchained," a movie filled with righteous murder and ecstatic fountains of spurting blood. But not only those things. Each moment of fun violence comes as part of Django's quest to rescue his wife, in which he kills dozens of white people who make their living on slavery. There are also moments of stunning, revolting violence, when the film shows us slaves whipped, set upon by dogs, or the nearly unwatchable scene of two slaves forced to fight to the death for the pleasure of white aristocrats.

The aesthetics of violence in the film aren't too hard to puzzle out: "Django" wants us to realize that some sorts of violence are righteous, and some aren't. Unlike "The Expendables," in which "bad guys" are so-labelled and marked for death by awful directorial fiat, in "Django" the bad guys are truly bad. Each of them has done physical or existential violence to Django and his wife by being a cog in the institution of slavery. The retribution sought by Django is an appropriate application of the popular cinematic maxim that the protagonist of an action movie must take justice into his own hands. That maxim makes sense here when, usually, it strikes me as scary. That's because, in the world of "Django," all the things done to Django, to his wife, and to every other slave in the film are perfectly legal. What other option does Django have but violence?

Still, I found myself wondering, as I sat through more scenes of bloody sadism: is this really necessary? It might be fun, and it might be righteous, but why? Why take pleasure in this violence? I think there are two parts to the answer.

1) Django (and, by proxy, the audience) deserves it. Django suffered through slavery (and we suffer from its memory--some of us more profoundly than others). "Django's" violence is payback, and though there are reasons why it might not feel good, those reasons are not within the scope of this film. The film is about triumph over and revenge on slavery.

2) The different aesthetics of violence in "Django" accentuate the film's unreality. Can anyone believe they are seeing real violence, or anything approaching it, when the violence is depicted in such profoundly different ways in the same film? The juxtaposition of the fight-to-the-death scene mentioned earlier and the hyper-stylized slaveholder deaths that register as cool or interesting (and even then only for a moment) highlights the ways that none of the violence we're seeing in real. The violence and death meted out by Django is limited only by our imaginations. The violence and death meted out to slaves is limited by the bounds of taste. Django's violence can be righteous and fun only because it isn't real, and everyone knows it.

I think "Django Unchained" is a great movie. The heightened reality of an exploitation film (which is at least part of what Django is) suits the antebellum south very well. And, more than most films, it's conscious of its violence. The film deploys violence according to a morality that makes sense in our own world, which is more than most movies can say.

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