The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Django Unchained

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article As promised in my review of the film, this Alternate Take will explore the relationship between freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and dentist/bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in greater detail - an aspect of the film that I find to be at once its most charming and perhaps most troubling. Before doing so, permit me to take a slight detour:

Two men sit in a car talking. The conversational topics are inane, familiar, and pleasant enough: humorous anecdotes about the little differences between Europe and America - like how you have to order a Royale with Cheese rather than a Quarter Pounder because of the metric system. The men are dressed anonymously - professionally, you might say - and apart from their rather retro hair, seem normal enough. In a few minutes, they will execute an entire room of young men. But not until they’ve got into character.

Another group of men, wearing similar suits and engaged in similarly inane conversation. One of these men is not who he seems, he is playing a role: he is the Marlon Brando of undercover cops. He is soon to learn that there is more to being convincing undercover than embellishing “the commode story” with personal details. Fleeing from the scene of a failed heist, this cop/robber takes one in the gut when hijacking a car. Without thinking, he fires back. It’s clear from his face that he can no longer tell if he’s an undercover cop playing at being a criminal, or a criminal playing at being an undercover cop.

I’ve chosen to retell these two moments from previous “films by Quentin Tarantino” (Pulp Fiction [1994] and Reservoir Dogs [1991] respectively) as a way of leading into discussion of what I believe to be a crucial element of Django Unchained (2012) and most (if not all) of Tarantino’s previous films. The element in question is performance.

In discussing performance, I do not use the word in its general sense meaning something like “the work done by actors before a camera.” Rather, I allude (hesitantly, vaguely) to the concept as used by Judith Butler and by later critics informed by her work. Butler’s earlier work is chiefly concerned with the performativity of gender. She argues that the outward displays of gender are not the expression of an innate, internal gender but rather that it is these very surface displays (performance) that creates gender. We can take this a step further, and argue that if this is the case for gender, why not identity itself? According to this model, our behaviours are not the inevitable outward symptoms of some core identity. Instead, identity is constantly (re)created through performance. This is of course a gross simplification of this theoretical model of subjectivity, but it should serve for the purposes of this article.

What bearing does this have on Django Unchained? The relevance of this concept of performativity to our understanding (and enjoyment) of the film is rather neatly expressed in a wonderful exchange between Schultz and Django in a clothing store. Schultz occupies the foreground of the scene, seated with his back to the audience. Django roams the background, trying on a number of different hats. Schultz is initiating Django into the intricacies of successful bounty-hunting, explaining the importance of playing a character. An attentive (or obsessive) member of the audience will recognise this keyword from Pulp Fiction, and its importance for Jules and Vincent in making the transition from slacker-raconteurs to bad-ass motherfuckers. Even if the semi-allusion to Pulp Fiction goes unnoticed, there is much within the scene itself to signal the importance of character and performativity. As already noted, the scene takes place in a clothes store, suggesting that, quite literally, the clothes maketh the man. This connection between costume and character implies that one need only adopt the appropriate surface embellishments in order to become someone else.

The brilliance of the scene though, lies in the choice to show Schultz’s reflection rather than his face. As Schultz sits explaining the importance of character to Django, the audience see not his face but a ghostly trace of it, a projection without substance imposed on a transparent glass cabinet. This surely is a wonderful metaphor for identity as pure surface, as intangible as the play of light on glass.

Cutting to the next scene, the audience is able to judge whether Django can successfully put Schultz’s teachings into practice. The first sight of the majestically stern Django, astride a horse and bedecked in Little Lord Fauntleroy finery suggests not. The incongruity between the physicality of Foxx and the foppish attire is at first humorous. On the other hand, it perhaps demonstrates Django’s great ability to manipulate the expectations of others, rather than his lack of sophistication. Certainly the reaction of plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) suggests that Django has expertly gauged his audience. For Big Daddy, a free Black American on horseback is a truly alien sight, and Django’s outlandish costume both reflects and subtly subverts such an attitude. Indeed, as becomes apparent later in the film, there is little Schultz can actually teach Django about performance that Django doesn’t already know.

For Schultz, adopting a character is a skill used to ease difficult situations (his jail-house lawyer ramblings when addressing witnesses to his bounty hunting, for example). For Django, performance is a necessity of survival. This is clear in the flashback to the whipping of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) at the hands of the Brittle Brothers. In this scene, Django adopts a hunched and submissive attitude completely at odds to his upright, Gary Cooper-esque posture in the rest of the film. His accent and diction also change, speaking in a broken English largely absent from the rest of the film. His entire performance speaks of supplication - it is exactly the manner in which a man like Big John Brittle (M.C. Gainey) would expect a slave to behave.

Django’s expertise at performativity does create tension between Django and Schultz, most notably when Django is adopting the persona of black slaver Charley-One-Eye. These tensions mount on the journey to Candyland. Schultz is concerned that Django’s aggression towards Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), not to mention his apparent disdain for the Mandingo fighters being transported, will antagonise Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and jeopardise their mission. Django knows better however, correctly determining that his actions are merely serving to pique Candie’s curiosity. The discrepancy between Django’s ability and Schultz’s is made clear when Candie sets the dogs on d’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), a slave caught in flight. Schultz is in danger of giving the game away, his morals causing him to break character. Django, however, never breaks character and is in this moment closest to the moral ambiguity of Eastwood’s Man with No Name. There is still nonetheless a flicker of humanity, Django resorting to wearing his dark glasses lest he reveal his emotion - or worse, his lack thereof. This is Django’s Mr Orange moment: the point of uncertainty between playing a role and becoming that which you play.

This also brings us to conflicting models of performance and identity. On the one hand, we have performance as a mask used to conceal a core, unchanging identity: performance as disguise. On the other we have a series of shifting, contradictory performances which conceal nothing since there is nothing to conceal: identity constituted through performance. Schultz certainly is evidence of the former. The absurd tooth bobbing about atop Schultz’s cart is a fitting analogue of his persona as eccentric and harmless foreigner. It’s a disguise so overt as to be paradoxically covert. Yet as noted above, the 'real' Schultz is always close to the surface. On the road to Candyland, Django confronts Schultz regarding the discrepancy between his mentor’s teaching and his actions. Django recalls the instance where he refused to kill a man in front of his son. Schultz informs Django that the man in the field is not a farmer - he’s a murderer and stagecoach robber and he always will be. Here, Schultz seemingly reiterates the arguments of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) from Inglorious Basterds: the belief in a core identity merely concealed by outward appearance.

Django twists Schultz’s argument somewhat, as evident from Django’s rather liberal paraphrasing of Schultz’s words. For Django, Schultz’s example does not mean “this man was bad once, and thus will always be bad” but rather “I have a job to do, and sometimes that means getting dirty.” This difference of perspective demonstrates both the differing moral codes of Django and Schultz, and that these differing moralities are closely tied to their divergent perspectives regarding performance.

This is the case in the example cited above, but also in Schultz’s final moments in the film. Unable to act against his own sense of honour and moral code, Schultz refuses to perform and instead of shaking hands with Candie he kills him. Turning to the audience, Schultz announces that he couldn’t resist - and it’s clear he couldn’t. Ultimately Schultz’s core Self trumps any of the layers of performance he may conceal himself in. This seems entirely fitting for the character at the moral core of the film - although Schultz’s is trapped by his morality, whereas it is the more flexible Django who rides off into the sunset.

It is Django who embodies the identity written through performance. Rather than existing within a binary of truth/disguise, Django’s identity is constituted through a series of performances. As discussed earlier, Django is able to perform the roles of both slave and slaver, of incongruous valet and fastest gun in the South. Even in the overlong interlude with the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co., Django inhabits a number of roles: utilising something of Schultz’s style when elaborating the details of the Smitty Bacall handbill before rapidly switching to an efficient, violent mode.

When Django returns to save Broomhilda, his performance reaches its apotheosis. Recovering the all-important hat, he is revealed in silhouette in the window approaching Broomhilda’s room. Kicking the door down, Django’s shadow is thrown across the floor and bed - a perfect abstraction of The Westerner accompanied by the soaring notes of Ennio Moriconne’s ‘Un Monumento’. The self-written hero, in this moment Django becomes more than man: he has become myth.

Django and Schultz are not the only performers in the film. Both Calvin and his senior house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), engage in performance with varying degrees of success. Candie’s performance is largely apparent through his affectations. Ensconced in a society which prides itself on being an imitation of European aristocracy, Candie disguises his lack of sophistication with the accoutrement of sophistication. He is a Francophile unfamiliar with Dumas and who doesn’t speak French. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word panache, and in response to Schultz’s toast of "Prost” replies “German.” Candie’s performance is paper thin and transparent. Nevertheless, his outburst after dinner, where he violently threatens Broomhilda, is still shocking, suggesting another layer to his performance: his buffoonery conceals his brutality.

Like Candie and Schultz, Stephen’s performance is of the order of disguise. His Uncle Tom shtick serves two purposes: on the one hand, he is able to make Candie look more sophisticated by comparison such as his mispronunciation of panache as pain-ass to draw attention away from Candie’s earlier ignorance; on the other, Stephen’s behaviour serves to conceal the fact that he is the de facto ruler of Candyland. Stephen’s first appearance in the film is not on the steps of Candyland’s big house, but in the house itself, in Calvin’s study signing cheques with Calvin’s signature. This is the real Stephen, everything that follows is only a necessary mask. Indeed, rather than seeing Stephen as an extension to Calvin, used by Calvin to appear more sophisticated it is more appropriate to see Calvin as Stephen’s mask. Stephen and Calvin keep up their double act to the mutual benefit of each, concealing from the outside world that it is in fact Stephen who runs the plantation.

In many ways, the relationship between Stephen and Candie is a twisted version of the relationship between Schultz and Django. Both relationships are paternal, although the paternal aspect of the Candie-Stephen relationship does not become clear until Candie meets Stephen in the study, Stephen savouring brandy and admonishing Candie for his foolishness. The paternal relation of Schultz to Django is one of the most pleasing elements of the film, although the extent to which it relies on the juvenilisation of Django is troubling.

Schultz often addresses Django as "my boy" or "young Django," and whilst Waltz is about ten years Foxx’s senior this still seems an insufficient age gap. This is complicated by the clear gap in learning between the characters, Schultz explaining words and helping Django to read. Schultz also cultivates Django’s manners, teaching him not to wear a hat inside and that it is rude to leave one’s hat on a table. Schultz even gives Django his first beer, a fitting father-son moment for the pair to share. Django also seems to place himself willingly in this position, adopting a childlike persona in order to encourage Schultz to tell him the story of Siegfried (further evidence of Django’s expertise in performance).

The issue is perhaps a matter of perspective: do we view Schultz’s paternalistic action towards Django as a sincere, loving attempt to draw Django out of the arrested development enforced on him through slavery; or do we read his behaviour as an extension of that very institution? I, for one, prefer the first reading, and find it reinforced by the particularly moving scene when Django returns to Candyland and wishes Schultz "auf Wiedersehen." It is also possible that the father-son relationship of Schultz and Django is simply another performance. Whether conscious or unconscious, it is nonetheless a performance that fulfils a need that both men never explicitly admit.

This Alternate Take was published on February 24, 2013.

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