Monday, January 7, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED, the value of ultimate evil and the need for revenge fantasies

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.


  1. Seeing as I'm a huge Tarantino fan, my first novel was a vigilante revenge thriller, and I'm also in the middle of writing my second WW2 action novel filled with Nazis getting stabbed, shot, and blown up, I can only nod my head in agreement here.

    I find it interesting - or maybe telling - that while vigilante violence is incredibly popular in our storytelling mediums, in the real world it is very, very rare. Almost all of it seems to be in the nature of A Time to Kill, a single passionate act of retribution. But stories like Death Wish or the host of comic book vigilantes like The Punisher never occur; the serial vigilante, a predator who hunts other predators.

    You might wonder...does this cathartic release in our storytelling serve as a balm to prevent this kind of behavior in the real world?

    1. "Django" was a mixed bag for me. There was some great performances and moments in it, but I thought the film was marred by two things:

      1) Uneven Tone. At times, it played deadly serious. Other times, scenes felt like outtakes from Blazing Saddles.

      2) Probability. Spoiler alert ahead. At the end of the movie, when Jamile Foxx surrenders after killing scores of Leonardo's redneck ranch hands, there's no way in the world he would still be alive the next day. Not gonna happen, no way, now how.

  2. TUL, I can see where you're coming from. Issue #1...that's just Tarantino, if you ask me. His films are all over the place, tone-wise, even back in the days of Pulp Fiction etc.. As for #2, would have been a much shorter movie...

    1. Jack,

      I just thought QT painted himself into a corner. Why have an ending where Jamie Foxx has to surrender? Why not have him and Kerry Washington escaping instead of being recaptured?

      Once JF surrenders, the movie got more and more improbable... still being alive the next day... being sold to the mining company... the redneck miners giving him a gun... etc. etc.

    2. I was just talking to a co-worker about that. Once the big gunfight happens, the move just careens off on this tangent. I think you might be right about painting into a corner. Once you put a gun to Hildy's head, and you know they care so little about her that they'll pull the trigger, what does he do?

      I almost think a better ending would have been for Hildy to have been killed in that standoff, Django escaping (since he's out of ammo) and then finding a way to come back and get his revenge. You'd get to the same place, and still cut 20 minutes from the film...

    3. I agree with Jack's point. That's not the ending that I'd want to see, but it IS the ending that the script seemed to call for once it established that situation.

  3. For me, I have to say that the movie fell apart in the last five minutes.
    When Django shoots Lara Lee, there's almost no reason for it at all. We don't "see" her treat any of the slaves unfairly though I suppose it is implied. In a way, she is more of an innocent character so to have Django blow her away made him to me incredibly evil and therefore I felt unfulfilled leaving the movie.

    1. The woman who ordered Django hung upside-down naked and then sold him to brutal slavers is sympathetic? Ummmm..... Okay.....

    2. Yeah, there was nothing sympathetic about Candie's sister, nothing to give us the impression she was the least bit compassionate towards the slaves or in any way disapproved of Candie's "Mandingo Fighting". If she had disapproved at all, passively or otherwise, there would have been some moment, some look or gesture or expression, to relay that to us. There was nothing.

    3. .....I guess I did not hear that part of her having him hung upside down. That probably was an extreme move after her BROTHER WAS KILLED and a ton of people that worked on their plantation were slaughtered in a gun fight. She totally should have just let Django go after that minor incident. That makes perfect sense.
      And Jack, you make an interesting point about one moment, look or gesture. For me (and I'm probably wrong after thinking about it) it was when he told Leo's character to cover up Hilda's back as she didn't want to see that at the dinner table. That to me was the subtle "enough" moment.
      Also, I think it's really sad that I can't have ONE gripe about the movie without getting jumped at with a sarcastic comment. I guess that's why they call you the bitter script reader :P.
      Love the blog, keep posting vids, you rock.

    4. Shko, actually, you do make a good point. My only counter-argument would be that her comment was related more to maintaining the decorum of the "dinner experience" and avoiding vulgarity and so forth, rather than feeling bad for her slave girl.

      For example, I could imagine a similar comment during the Mandingo fight if she had been there, but related to getting the blood out of the floor or off the walls, rather than caring about the barbarity taking place in her household.

      Still, I can definitely see an argument for the whipped back moment, I just read it differently than you did.

    5. Definitely man. Your point made me think differently about it for sure. The group I went with also said she seemed somewhat innocent, but your point brings about a different perspective!

    6. Shko, forgive my glibness. It's my way.

      Okay, here's my perspective on Lara's guilt. Aside from the points already mentioned, there is the detail that The Unknown Lyricist mentions that it's improbably that they'd let Django survive after that. We're told that his fate was decided by Lara Lee, and that she had originally considered castrating him.

      Let's also not forget that as far as Lara Lee knows, Django is a freed slave. Selling him back into slavery is a violation of his rights, but more relevantly, she's sending him off to an intensely brutal life because she wants an exceptionally harsh revenge. If it was just an eye for an eye, she'd shoot him. Instead, she chooses a particularly sadistic fate.

      At that point, all bets are off as I see it. So your brother was killed, Lara? Boo-hoo, you stood by while he sent many men off to Mandingo fighting. I'm not saying that ANY slavery was a walk in the park, but this is a particularly inhumane treatment of sentient beings.

      The slavers there were all party to this, through their actions and their indifference.

      So storming into that plantation and arguing that someone like Lara should be spared just because it was all her brother's idea is a little like storming Auschwitz and being choosy about which Nazis you shoot to death. They're all party to this and they're ALL guilty.

      On another note, I find it interesting to debate whether or not the Samuel L. Jackson character is as bad or even worse than DiCaprio's. He gets what he deserves, but is he worse than DiCaprio? I'd say only if you think being a race traitor vastly outweighs being the instigator.

  4. Bitter, this article is not clear and makes me more confused. Tarantino's movies don't exist on the one dimensional plain you're describing. (See Shko post above).

    In "Basterds" I sympathized with the Nazis at various points in the movie, as did many in the audience - that was the point. In simplistic Nazi movies, the Nazis do the beating and killing, not the good guys.
    In "Basterds" the movie they played spoofed "Saving Private Ryan" with the bell tower scene. When the German War hero was killed in the projector room -- I had mixed emotions. And when they beat a Nazi to death with a bat, you're supposed to feel uneasy -- is this what I want? You're naturally sympathetic to the victim. Do I want this kind of revenge?

    I don't think these are revenge fantasy movies like "Death Wish". There is a lot more going on, especially when the climax goes beyond the plantation owners and ends on the "House Slave" Samuel L Jackson as worse than the plantation owners.

  5. Fantasies are fantastic portals into our psychology, but there are lines between Revenge, Revolution and rampant ignorance. It may feel good to throw a blanket on the issue of Nazi Germany and call everything underneath it evil, but some would argue that many of the handmaidens who fell under the spell of Hitler were responding to a desire to avenge their national and personal pride in the aftermath of WWI. Pride was tied to race and destiny, and when one invests in that...well, subjugation and slaughter...

    On both sides of good and evil, a big bath in blood is seen as a cleansing act.

    In the case of DJANGO, I think QT attempts to plunge deeper into the murkier depths of the revenge fantasy well -- particularly with characters such as Candie and Stephen. Tradition is a strong indoctrinating tool, and often personal pride and power trump race. It was interesting, and while I find Tarantino's revenge fantasies immensely entertaining, I don't feel that they dig much beneath the visceral. The movies are intense, entertaining, but if we're looking for a social conversation about human history and atrocity and our role in the past and present, perhaps we should have that chat after the lights come up (which is why I'm glad BSR waited to post this blog after the movie's release). It's so simple for people such as Spike Lee to cry foul and judge, but I have to question the intent.

    Tarantino's work has value (even if he nearly destroys the momentum of DJANGO with wholly unnecessary stretches of banter and redundant beats). I'm thrilled he continues to push through the haters and deliver bold work. I just hope all that visceral feeling can find more nuanced connections in his next movies. Or, perhaps that's for other filmmakers to attempt. The lone justice-bringing gunmen who punish slave masters or Nazi-scalping commando teams don't set the world right -- they are fantasy, as you say. Just as evil dictators and lone psychopaths do not usher slavery or holocaust into the world on their own, we don't truly fight back with Batman.

  6. Great discussion going here, guys! I've got a lot of thoughts but won't have time to express them until later, so don't think I'm ignoring you.

    Seriously, thanks for such intelligent debate.

  7. If you have interesting characters each person is bound to get something out of it...good or bad.