Django Unchained ★★★★

In the middle of his life, Dante came to a dark wood, and there met Virgil. In the middle of Django's life, in a dark wood, he meets Dr. King Schultz. Virgil saved Dante from sin, by showing him the torments of the damned; Dr. Schultz saves Django from a current damnation he could not possibly have earned, and they still go on their tour of hell: America is hell.

Quentin Tarantino is known (among other things) for possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure films and film history. He is not known for having any level of literary understanding, and quite honestly I never expected him to demonstrate any. As with the Inferno reference, though, he references and then subverts the western canon throughout this film, as a way of illustrating that America is deeply, deeply guilty.

Shortly after rescuing Django in the forest, Schultz rides with him to the small town of Daughtrey, Texas. Everyone is racist there. We can't really expect anything better from the authorities, either. The trigger-happy Dr. Schultz seems to have come to that conclusion as well, and summarily executes the sheriff as soon as he arrives. Why, though? It turns out this sheriff was once a notorious cattle rustler named Bill Sharp, who has made good since then and been elected Sheriff: If this were Les Miserables, Sharp would be the hero. Sharp is an American Jean Valjean, having gone from crime to public service. Schultz is Javert, vindicated for once. A man elected to authority by such bad people can scarcely demonstrate any moral growth, so Schultz eliminates him without ever suffering any of the agonies of the Inspector who eventually learned that even he can forgive anyone but himself. America can't be forgiven.

Javert sees himself as following God: an invisible monarch which never speaks for itself, yet which is an unwavering authority. Schultz serves the court, an entity that also never appears in this film. Indeed, the lack of any legal authority figures in the film is notable: Outside of the sheriff and Dr. Schultz, we only encounter Mr. Moguy, the man born to be Calvin Candie's lawyer; an obsequious man who follows his employer more than any law. Law and order are so absent in the film's universe that the Candieland survivors send Django away with the LeQuint-Dickey Mining Company lackeys rather than having him prosecuted. Schultz thus serves an authority better than those that actually rule his time and place: one which he alone represents, but which does not allow the wicked to go unpunished, even when the whole damn society is wicked. America can't be forgiven.

Eventually, we arrive at the film's literary centerpiece, Dr. Schultz's narration of the story of Siegfried: a heroic story of a man who triumphs over a dragon in order to save the princess Brumhilde. I need not draw parallels between the film and this story, because the film does it for us. Yet, a dragon is an imaginary creature, existing outside of human societies. It has tremendous greed and will kill entire villages of people to enrich itself. Calvin Candie, an individual representing all enslavers, is our antagonist. Yet, he's not a dragon. He's human, and has the support of the rest of his society. He's not a disruptive beast that comes in from outside. Schultz and Django come from outside and arrive to kill him and his attendants. Django, puffing smoke, destroys his house in a massive conflagration. Django is the dragon, swooping in from outside to wreak havoc on established society. America can't be forgiven.

Similarities with Homer's Odyssey are clear as well. After having fantastical adventures involving cyclops, sirens, witches, and gods, the story's denouement finds crafty Odysseus confronted with one more rather mundane obstacle: his wife's suitors who, thinking him dead, have overrun his home and attempted to violate his relationship with Penelope. Django finds his beloved in a similar state: made a "comfort girl" against her will. Confronted with this, Django, too, kills the opposers, proving himself to also be Odysseus. Yet, where Django finds Broomhilda is not in her own home, nor is it his. He is the outsider, nearly forbidden from even stepping inside the house, yet recognized by Stephen and Lady Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly as favored by Broomhilda, and so a threat to their order of things. Django's ultimate triumph over them finds him acting as one of those suitors, walking into an ornate home and surprisingly slaying Odysseus and his entire family. Here it's the interloper who does the slaughtering, and who is the hero. Here the landowner can't be the right one. America can't be forgiven.

The film explicitly references one more work outside of the Siegfried cycle, that of The Three Musketeers. Calvin Candie fancies himself a cultured man, yet can't speak French, and can't imagine two weeks in Boston. He reads and admires the works of Alexandre Dumas, particularly The Three Musketeers, a story of four (yes, I know) noble heroes who valiantly serve their king and thwart an outside plot. Yet, he is somehow unaware that Dumas happens to be Black. Schultz disabuses Candie of his ignorance, and Candie looks shocked, slightly ill, and then falls silent before changing the subject. His noble heroes are now a lie. Schultz knew the truth about Dumas, and he knows the truth about noble heroes: they aren't Musketeers, fighting for the noble king, because the king is not noble. Or perhaps, noble is not good. Sometimes Javert, or the Dragon, or the Suitors have to be the heroes, because what surrounds them is just that rotten. Now Django is the hero. America can't be forgiven, but perhaps it can be shocked into silence when its assumptions are exposed as lies, even if the spirit of Calvin J. Candie can't be shut up permanently.