Django Unchained will be released on Christmas day, and there will, no doubt, be much fanfare and a huge turnout. This is the eighth film by director Quentin Tarantino, and if the trailer is anything to go by, it will be as full of violence, stylistic and not, as any of his previous films.
There are two levels of violence happening in this movie. One is of the grittier, meaner variety meant to realistically represent the situation of plantation slaves in America; the other is of the effusive, contrived variety seen in every Tarantino movie.
The basic premise of the film is that Django, a slave turned bounty hunter, (played by Jamie Foxx) goes under the tutelage of a more experienced bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The end goal is to go up against the plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington).
Whether or not the film’s use of the n-word is problematic, or whether or not Tarantino’s approach to history is excusable (Washington says that it isn’t ‘just’ a painful look at a horrible time in American history, but “the full sha-bang”) are questions for another article. For now, let’s take a look at the violence.
Violence is the reason to see a Tarantino movie. As much as his films might be love letters to genre films, and films in general, they are also blood-soaked arrangements of shootings, stabbings, and all else visceral and violent.
People will argue that this violence is morally bad, or bad for society, or unnecessary as a storytelling technique, but I disagree. Gratuitous violence isn’t always a good way to tell a story, but it’s necessary if it is the story, and, with Tarantino, it is always the story. His films don’t follow the logic of reality. They follow the logic of cinematic storytelling. Tarantino may not like to do films like this as “big issue movies,” but he does want to rub people’s faces into cruelty and violence like they are puppies who need to be housetrained. The violence is there as an emphasis, an exaggeration, of what a logical part of the movie might be.
I hate to sound overly blunt, but I often think he does gore as much for the fun of shooting it as for any other reason. These movies are less about issues, less about narrative arcs, than they are about character, scenery, and fitting in as many references to other films as they can possibly hold. Violence in a Tarantino movie is just a reason for joyful use of color, a movie scene as an archetype, and of physical presence of the actors taken to extremes.
The perennial question is whether violence in movies begets violence in real life; whether witnessing shootings in movies makes people gung-ho to try it for themselves. I cannot say with authority that it does not, but I give people credit for being able to differentiate fantasy from reality. Does seeing Wile E. Coyote walk on air until he notices he's off the ground make us doubt gravity? Part of the fun of movies is buying into the rules of the world on the screen because they are different from those of our everyday lives. For many genre movies violence is simply part of the rules of the game. A noir flick without an untrustworthy dame and a couple of murders isn't much of a noir flick at all.
Look at the trailer for Django Unchained. At one point a character is shot from a horse by our hero. Is the death of that character the point? Is it even important? Or is it a chance to watch a glorious splash of blood across the cotton blossoms? It’s a beautiful image and a bit of a metaphor, and it doesn’t have all that much to do with the act of violence that created it.