The revenge genre is a vein that Quentin Tarantino mined most directly in the Kill Bill movies. Even while his plots have deviated from that focus, the label has stuck. A revenge plot figures prominently in Inglourious Basterds, but Shosanna stalking the Nazi colonel who killed her family is only half the story. The eponymous “basterds” are on a mission to end the war by killing Hitler. In doing so, they are quite patently enacting our revenge, but within the story itself that mission is an act of intervention rather than one of vengeance.
In Django Unchained, that genre connection is even more abstract. In fact, for most of the film, the revenge motive is strictly implicit. Like the story’s ostensible villain, Calvin Candie, we wonder why the slaves don’t rise up to kill their owners. Our sense of genre is thus shaped by our perceptions of what Django should want, as opposed to what the character clearly does want.
It’s a point that, in our eagerness to read Django Unchained as a revenge film, many of us seem to have missed the first time around. Richard Brody of The New Yorker‘s film blog, The Front Row, has written that,
[Tarantino's] vision of slavery’s monstrosity is historically accurate; his anger, aptly placed—yet the world that he imagines and admires, one without reconciliation, is essentially and crudely adolescent, a version of history as blood feuds in which anger begets anger and revenge breeds revenge as he watches from the superior position of the cinematic referee, at a safe historical distance.
If that interpretation seems, on the face of things, reasonable, then reflect for a moment on how much effort it takes to actually move Django to the grander revenge of the movie’s climax. Unlike Shosanna’s patient approach to Lanza in Basterds, everyone Django might bear a personal grudge against is already dead or forgotten before the start of the second act. The greater villains of the story he only meets in the process of rescuing his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft. That leaves the social grievance of the freed slave against the institution of slavery, but Django must be goaded into confronting that.
From all outward appearances, his thirst for vengeance seems to peak with the discovery of his former slave-masters on Big Daddy’s plantation. For the middle hour and a half of the film, revenge, even against the institution itself, is little more than an abstraction. Sure, when asked if he enjoys bounty hunting, he answers, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” The prominence given to that line in trailers no doubt shaped our perception of the movie in advance of actually having seen it, but don’t overlook the context. It’s a joke between two men who abhor the institution of slavery—one of whom is white. And anyway, most of the men he’ll kill as a bounty hunter are thieves and murderers, but not explicitly slave-owners.
So while there are intimations of revenge here and there, what really sustains us in the conviction that Django Unchained is a revenge movie, per se, is our sense of the historical context. Tarantino toys with that awareness, as when he shows Django practicing the quick draw against a snowman—and if you doubt that the snow’s whiteness is the point, consider for a moment that Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious house slave Stephen, challenges Django’s blackness by calling him “Snowball.” But such details are mirrors to our own self-consciousness, not direct reflections of the character’s frame of mind. We naturally list toward seeing a slave protagonist as a representative for entire generations of aggrieved black Americans; the script and direction need only grease the path for us.
All of which is to say that, for the audience, the difficulty of the story is that Django’s real, unswerving motive is the rescue of his wife, Hildy. Having finally reunited, they are, by all appearances, willing to walk away in peace.
That would have gnawed at him in time, we’re inclined to argue. Django cannot simply walk away, escaping to some free territory with Hildy and leaving it to history to settle the slaves’ score. What seems far less doubtful is that it would have gnawed at us, the audience, both black and white. We are, by this time (not just the 2-hour mark, but also the 200-year mark) clambering for catharsis.
Because he handles plot with an excess of style, it’s easy to miss how thoughtful and restrained Tarantino had been in flirting so deliberately with anticlimax. This is both his strength as a filmmaker and the sleight of hand that leads his critics most astray. While we are focused on the ostentatious gestures he has quite flagrantly copped from the exploitation movies of the 1970s, he is busy turning the knife of our expectations against us.
Oh, sure, it would be nice to see Django and Hildy transcend that great blot on American history and find happiness, however hedged about by danger, in some free territory to the West. But throughout the signing of the contract that will free Hildy, we feel not relief, but rather a complex kind of concern: might the movie deny us the apotheosis we expect? To hell with Django’s happiness, some inward part of us says. We came to see blood.
Deviously, Tarantino has been nurturing that expectation, not least of all in the difference between how his characters kill and die. Because they are nearly all shot, the death visited upon the white characters is distant, detached. Their blood sometimes radiates gradually from the wound, as though uncertain that it’s safe to leave; at others, it leaps cartoonishly into the air in a single tongue-like splash, as though it just couldn’t wait to disabuse itself of the person’s company. Slaves, on the other hand, are killed slowly, tortuously. Guns almost never factor in, and the hands-on intimacy with which their killers snuff them out stills the laughter in our throats.
In a review for the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris calls Christoph Waltz—or, more properly, his character, Dr. King Schultz—Tarantino’s “stand-in,” adding that “for the first 70 minutes or so you can tell Tarantino’s so proud of what he’s written for the stand-in to say.” With deference to Morris’ acumen and stature as a critic, it must be said that he’s wrong on that point. The proof is the sheer overwhelming folly of Schultz’s plan for rescuing Broomhilda. It is, after all, Schultz who insists that a man like Candie would never sell Hildy outright, and Schultz who floats the idea of pretending to be slavers buying a “Mandingo fighter.” But Schultz, as Tarantino has pointed out, has gotten everything disastrously wrong. “If they had come and offered to buy Broomhilda for $5,000,” he told The Huffington Post‘s Mike Ryan, “Candie would have done it.” When the scheme falls apart, we expect Candie to mete out a sadistic punishment. Instead, he go through with the sale, his histrionics calculated to leverage a high price.
No, it would be more apt to say that Schultz stands in for us, the audience. The deal he offers over Django’s first taste of beer is our deal: like Schultz, we find slavery repulsive, but we’ll consent to see Jamie Foxx as a slave for a little while, if that means we get to see some historical bogeymen punished as they never were in life. Even if we’re skeptical of the details, we accept Schultz’s plan for rescuing Hildy because it moves us closer to a confrontation we want to see. And his refusal to part amicably with Candie lets us tell ourselves that, living in a time and place where slavery was a moral norm, we’d have stood on principle rather than indulgence.
It’s a crucial moment in the movie, but the twist of the narrative knife is so subtle that it’s easy to miss just how. It is delivered to us by a character so accustomed to having triumph come on his own terms that he cannot be content with having helped reenact the legend of Brunhilda. Brody comes close to the point when he notes that,
if Schultz’s retributive anger proved ultimately ineffective, counterproductive, and catastrophic, it’s because his revulsion in the presence of Candie ought to have been secondary to the mission at hand, a mission undertaken for the benefit of Django and Hildy. Instead, Schultz made it personal, and thereby lost his cool.
“Ought to have been,” that is, in the context of the story they had originally planned. In the broader context of the audience watching the film, the refusal to shake hands is precisely correct because Schultz is acting as though from the perspective of historical hindsight. He, like the audience, believers that the desire for revenge against the institution should drive Django, even if that means sacrificing everything in a pyrrhic display of violence.
If Django won’t seek it himself, goes the narrative logic, then someone must force his hand. Most of all, then, we should see ourselves in Schultz when, in the moment that he has all but doomed the newly reunited couple, he turns and says, “I’m sorry, Django; I just couldn’t help myself.”