This violence at the end of the film is positively cartoony. QT films it like an homage to Sam Peckinpah, but his version of Peckinpah involves bodies exploding and emptying their liquid-filled contents everywhere, walls covered in blood, multiple gunshot wounds to every body part imaginable, and at the end: a crimson, bloody mess. It's funny. It's not to be taken with total seriousness, and there's even a moment when a single gunshot blows a woman six feet in a completely preposterous direction like something out of an episode of Wile E. Coyote. This is violence for the sake of pleasure. Django's revenge on the white slaveowners is simultaneously QT's revenge on the entire institution of American slavery (as Shosanna Dreyfus's revenge on Hans Landa is simultaneously QT's (delicious) revenge against Adolf Hitler). Revenge is sweet, and these acts of vengeance are shared with the audience: we also get to feel as though we have had revenge on Hitler, on American slavery, on the genocide of European Jews.
This is nonsense, of course: a total fantasy that allows audiences to feel really great about all that they've done to combat racism/slavery/oppression/history. Rooting for Jamie Foxx seems like it is the same thing as fighting racism. (I was at a screening populated by about 95% white people and I couldn't help but notice how much all of those white people were loving watching other white people get killed.) Vis-à-vis race I find Django sort of questionable and easy. Still, I loved its unabashed hatred of racism, its powerful black central characters, and most importantly its attention to the violence of slavery itself.
For while the violence committed against white people by Django and Dr. King Shultz (Dr. King?!) is treated in a chiefly cartoon manner, QT treats the violence committed against black people by white people during American slavery as absolutely horrific: like the attempted genocide it truly was. The audience watches, horrified, as dogs rip apart a middle-aged man. Django's wife Broomhilda is brutally whipped and subjected to other tortures. The camera shies away from none of this. Instead, QT asks his audience to sit with this violence, to pay attention to what happened. This is not The Help. Django Unchained presents the racist violence of slavery in an incredibly graphic fashion: the audience at the screening I attended squirmed and covered its eyes; the tension and sorrow in the theatre were palpable.
In other words, all violence onscreen is not created equal, as you probably already knew, but QT's ability to switch back and forth between certain techniques for representing violence strikes me as ethically responsible. For my money, Tarantino approaches screen violence with care, sensitivity, and a very clear political agenda.
Samuel L. Jackson, by the way, steals the entire film. Just let that be known. He has the wittiest, funniest dialogue, and he says motherfucker about ten thousand times. I was delighted.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow's film about the CIA's hunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden over the period of ten years following 11 September 2001 – also involves a good deal of violence. Like her previous film The Hurt Locker (which I loved), this violence is always presented in a realistic, almost banal fashion. It is a part of Bigelow's project to present violence as ubiquitous in the areas where USAmerican soldiers are stationed. These young people's bodies exist in a state of constant risk and ever-present tension; Bigelow's way of representing violence, therefore, tends to bombard the viewer with so much violence, that violence itself begins to feel normal. This is a reality on the ground for both civilians and military personnel in these regions invaded by the United States military.
Zero Dark Thirty is a character study, really, a kind of window into the mind of someone who tracks down difficult-to-find enemies of the United States. Jessica Chastain's central performance is marvelous: at once steely and terrified and angrier than Howard Beale in Network. She will be winning the Best Actress Oscar come February. Make no mistake about it.
Still, though I liked it very much, I didn't love Zero Dark Thirty like I loved The Hurt Locker. There are sequences that look lifted directly from HBO's The Wire, and if ZDT is clear about torture as something wrong, the film asks no questions about USAmerican presence in Pakistan or Afghanistan or its black sites in other locations in the world. Not that the film needs to be more philosophical about the reasons for United States war efforts in the Middle East, but I would have liked it better had it taken USAmerican involvement in the Middle East a little less for granted.