Saturday, December 29, 2012
One of my favorite characters in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is Hob Gadling. Hob essentially declares that he is going to live forever and Death, who is in the tavern when he makes this declaration, grants him his wish. Dream, the main character of the story, who is also there in the tavern, visits with Hob once every century, to check up on him; their friendship is one of the few tangible things that Dream seems to truly value. In any case, at one of their meetings (during the 18th century, I believe, although I may be mistaken), Hob tells Dream that he is currently in the slave business, and marvels at the efficiency of the triangle trade, and how little effort it takes him to make money at it. Dream tells him that it's a bad business, and he should get out of it (which he does, of course, since New World chattel slavery ultimately ceases to be any kind of profession at all), and life continues for Hob Gadling, all the way into the present day.
That's the way the universe works - people make awful moral decisions and, at best, they live long enough to renounce those decisions and choose a different path, but usually the world keeps spinning and no one really cares and no one ever pays the price for them. But that is not the way Quentin Tarantino's universe works, and perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of his filmmaking is what a starkly moral universe he inhabits. Those who make compromised moral choices, even at something of a remove, are punished for them, and the audience is forced to reckon with both the moral choice that has brought the vengeance down upon it, as well as its own culpability in desiring the vengeance in the first place.
Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who has been separated from his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) by a particularly sadistic master, is enlisted into the bounty hunter trade by King Schultz (Christophe Waltz) because Schultz needs his help in ID'ing a trio of men who were former overseers at Django's last plantation. Django discovers he has a knack for the bounty hunting business and he and Schultz spend the winter of 1858-59 hunting fugitives from justice until their travels bring them, finally, to the plantation owner who currently owns Brunhilde, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation-owning scion who is also a Francophile and not a bit of a dandy. Django and Schultz devise a scheme to free Brunhilde from bondage, and, as this is a Tarantino film, an orgy of blood follows.
Waltz's ability to hone in on Tarantino's weird cadences, and deliver them with something resembling actorly ability, is nothing short of remarkable, and it is not surprising that he has become the filmmaker's latter-day muse, because he is perhaps the only person capable of making Tarantino's dialogue work as well on screen as it does on paper. Between Waltz's presence and DiCaprio's go-for-broke performance (and it is very nice to have DiCaprio working outside of his taciturn comfort zone; some may legitimately balk at the bigness of Calvin Candie but I, for one, loved the character as presented) Foxx is almost the odd man out in what is, ostensibly, his film. Django doesn't truly come into his own until the final act but when he finally does, it is a moment of triumph, and the point at which having the supremely confident Foxx playing the character really pays off. But the film is, in many ways, stolen by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, a slave who is Candie's closest confidant and who clearly regards the status quo as the proper order of things. He is, in a weird way, something of the film's moral compass, a character who is both a victim of the slave society into which he was born and also a perpetrator of it. Calling him the film's true villain isn't quite accurate - he is the most dangerous and treacherous character in the movie, but he is also perhaps its most human.
This is a film that is awash in slavery, in its brutality and in the way that it forces those who live under its dominion to make awful, compromised moral choices, some of those people happier to make those choices than others. The third act of the film is set into motion by a choice that Django makes, one that initially horrified me but which I came to understand in the context of the film, and which I will not spoil. The first time we meet Brunhilde she is being subjected to a particularly brutal bit of torture that forces the audience to contemplate the true horror of what it means for a person to own another human being, to have their life completely under the dominion of another. That the commeuppance of first-order slavers like Candie is the primary goal of the film is of no surprise; that second-order slavers like the trio of, essentially, escort men who are charged with sending him to his final destination (a mine which uses exclusively slave labor) in the third act are also in Django's sights is perhaps more surprising, and that the film finds little reason to mourn their loss is perhaps its most subversive notion. But Stephen presents a real moral dilemma, one that the film does not have particularly easy answers for, and that is perhaps its most truly surprising idea. And no one ever gets to say, "I was just following orders", because there are no orders, there are only men and women under human bondage, and those who allow that system to perpetuate itself. A