Something interesting happens in Quentin Tarantino’s movies when circumstances – be they those of 1850s slavery in the United States of America or those of Nazi extermination of Jews in 1940s Europe – produce the Good and the Bad. The interesting thing is that, eventually, both the Good and the Bad become Ugly.
Now, this is not to say that the division between the two collapses entirely so that we are left with some kind of nebulous moral relativism that prevents us from differentiating the good from the bad. No, this is not the case at all. But both the good (which become the really Good) and the bad (which become the really Bad) start to evoke a certain kind of sadness brought on by the ugliness of history and the participation of men and women in this history. And they do so while, at the very same time, they allow the audience to genuinely celebrate the asskicking that the Good bestow upon the Bad. It is truly a beautiful (and grotesque) thing.
In a recent interview, Tarantino has stated that Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds “bespeak a trilogy.” “As different as they are,” Tarantino noted, “there is a companion piece quality. There might very well be a third one. I just don’t know what it is yet” (http://www.totalfilm.com/news/quentin-tarantino-hints-at-inglourious-basterds-django-unchained-trilogy).
Like that of the Basterds, the plot of Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest flick, is relatively straightforward. Set in 1858, approximately two years before the start of the Civil War in the Southern United States – Texas and Mississippi – the story follows Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave given his freedom by the German bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), in exchange for help in tracking down and killing the odious Brittle Brothers. As Django joins Shultz in the bounty business – which is explicitly compared to slavery by Shultz himself – Django’s motives for vengeance move from personal to impersonal/financial and back to personal.
In his attempt to rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), Django, with the help of Schulz, becomes the spirit of vengeance and one of the quickest draws in the South. By the end of the flick, however, as he triumphs in the aura of Tarantino badass glory, Django also becomes something else. We cheer for him and for his actions; we cheer for his destruction of the truly Bad Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). But we are also saddened. The fact that in a scene before he finishes off the villains, Django’s face is covered with white dust, that his teeth strangely start to resemble Candie’s, and that he rides off into the night with his wife wearing Candie’s clothes, (ought to) trouble the pleasure we get from seeing the Good triumph.
As do the Basterds – particularly Brad Pitt and Eli Roth’s characters in Tarantino’s 2009 flick – Django becomes what Joseph Natoli has called a “Barbarian of the Good” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/52/the-deep-morals-of-inglourious-basterds). This is how Natoli describes this phenomenon: “[E]verything is morally permitted – stupidity, ignorance, savagery … – because goodness can never commit an evil in its battle with evil. You can take this attitude right up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s advocacy of torture at Guantanamo: we’re the good guys; we can’t do anything wrong. If we have reasoned our way to this view, then perhaps we’ve reasoned as Colonel Landa and the SS officer reason.”
Colonel Hans Landa (Basterds) and Dr. King Schultz, both played by Christoph Waltz, are here an instructive example. Waltz’s approach to both characters seems to have been the same, to a degree. Both Landa and Schultz are, again in the words of Natoli, “as ingratiating Devil[s] as Walter Huston’s Nick Bael was in The Devil and Daniel Webster, … more appealing, more human than Conrad Veidt as Colonel Strasser in Casablanca, … less odious than Ralph Fiennes as the Nazi Commandant in Schindler’s List.” While Shultz displays a level of sympathy Landa never does, there is a strong sense that Landa is what Shultz would have been had he been born 80 or so years later. Yet, while Landa is clearly Bad, Shultz is equally clearly Good, despite the fact that he is a cold-hearted bounty hunter who instructs Django how to calmly kill a man, from a distance, right in front of this man’s son. Both Landa and Shultz are, undoubtedly, also Ugly.
Again, my point is not to argue that Tarantino’s latest movies completely destroy the difference between the forces of Good and the forces of Bad. Rather, they dare us to laugh and cheer at (and in) a world in which there is very little to cheer for and even less to laugh at. There was in the Basterds, and there is in Django, a feeling that the audience needs to be much more thoughtful before they allow themselves to laugh. For it is in a kind of instinctive, thoughtless laughter that the audience itself can – but need not – become extremely Ugly.