Often writers will be advised to create complex, multifaceted characters. "The villain is the hero of his own story," they are told. Often, it's considered undesirable to have an antagonist who's just evil for evil's sake. And that's true. I've read many a script where I was put off because the bad guy was just one-dimensionally evil.
But one genre where you can get away with that sort of writing is revenge fantasy. These are the sorts of stories that exist to give a cathartic release to the audience by allowing them retribution against a horrible evil.
I've said before that the lone virtue of Nazis is that they have provided storytellers with the ultimate unsympathetic villain. You need to create an antagonist that the audience is in no way going to feel bad for, no matter how brutally they are punished? Make him a Nazi. You need your hero to kill 50 guys to prove his badassery, but are worried about the moral quandary of the good guy indiscriminately murdering people left and right? Make them Nazis.
No one will ever complain about how horribly a film depicts Nazis. Their entire existence is a horrible depiction. If a film showed a Nazi party member raping an altar boy, killing a horse, beating a woman and torturing a kitten, is anyone going to step up and say that besmirches the good name of Nazis everywhere?
Of course not.
Now try that with a Catholic Priest.
The fact that Hitler is the go-to comparison in an argument when someone wants to demonize their opponent is pretty much proof that it's impossible to be unfair when painting Nazis as evil. There are only a handful of groups that share that sort of reputation. Having used Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turned to another decidedly un-protected class in Django Unchained - viscous slave owners.
It's interesting that Tarantino gets attacked for the violence in his films, but more often than not, the people who die horribly in his films totally deserve what's coming to him. Again and again we're shown the worst of humanity - slave owners who sell human beings as chattle. They beat them, they brand them, they whip them. In one uncomfortable scene, Kerry Washington's character is debased by being thrown naked in a hot box, then later is nearly stripped for the amusement of her owner, who takes particular glee in showing off the whip marks on her back.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays one of the more prominent slave owners in the film and his performance is a major highlight. We're used to seeing him play mostly intense and serious characters, so it's incredibly enteraining to see him taking such glee in playing such a loathsome character.
It's interesting how Tarantino handles the violence. All of the "evil" violence is handled in a serious, unsettling way. There's no tongue-in-cheek when it comes to the slave whippings and brandings. But when the victimizers get what's coming to them, it's classic over-the-top violence. This isn't Unforgiven. This is no meditation on the morality of violence. It's evil people getting what's coming to them.
I'd posit that we need these revenge fantasies. We want to see some kind of horrible retribution visited on the monsters who murdered six. Million. Jews. in the Holocaust. We need to see the people who sold and whipped other human beings get a taste of their own medicine. Do they deserve to die? (skip to :20. Stupid YouTube won't let me set it to embed there directly.)
That clip is from A Time to Kill. It's a fantastic film with a somewhat troubling morality behind it. Two southern rednecks beat and brutally rape a young black girl. Though the men are arrested, there's an excellent chance that they will go free. Unable to cope with that, the girl's father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, guns them down in the courthouse. The rest of the film focuses on the prosecution of Jackson's character for capital murder.
It seems insane that the grieving father could be punished for avenging his daughter while the men who beat her might have been able to walk around as free men. The film asks us to sympathize with vigilante justice. Nay, it demands we do so.
In the real world, as much as we might sympathize with Jackson's plight, those men never faced their day in court. They never were found guilty and so the presumption of innocence is something they're legally entitled to. In the real world, the hero of our movie is a premeditated murderer. Does passion excuse that? Think of the West Memphis Three - three innocent men who lost nearly twenty years of their lives to wrongful murder convictions where child murders stirred up passions as intense as those in A Time to Kill.
But that's the real world. Why don't we shed a tear for the bastards in A Time to Kill? Because in "movie world," we are omniscient. We KNOW they did it. We SAW them do it and if it was in our power, we'd strangle them with our bare hand. As viewers we are witness, judge, jury and executioner.
That is the power of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Those horrible evils are beyond our capacity to punish. But through the movies, we can take back a little control, and for a few hours, we can live in a world where evil people will not escape justice. Tarantino taps into our primal need for this and provides us with movies that make us feel.
Strive for this in your writing. Seek powerful scenes and moments that speak to what an audience needs to see, what they need to believe in. Django Unchained doesn't fetishize violence for it's own sake, or for simple shock value. There is a clear purpose to Tarantino's methods.
Outdoor movie screenings in LA this summer!
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