Why Django Unchained is not really about Django
Django Unchained is a peculiar film. It tip toes along a fine line between vigorous exploitation and gentle subtly. At times, it feels like it is fighting itself to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Does it want to be a homage to the antebellum south and classic western films or would it prefer to steep itself in modernity and pop culture references like in most Tarantino films?
As the two tones of the film collide and try to reach an equilibrium, the roles of characters are thrown into flux. Who is the main character? Whose story is given more importance, Schultz or Django?
Turns out, the film is about both of the heroes and manages to fit two hero's journeys within its narrative. And before you read on, I'd like to point out there is some major spoilage going on in this article. So if you'd like, and if you've seen Django Unchained, please read on for an examination of Schultz and Django's stories. And boy, this is a long one.
Before I get started, allow me to explain what the "hero's journey" truly is. A hero's journey centers on a chosen individual, conventionally average, who has to go through a set of trials and reach a point of transcendence (or evolution) because of struggle and the persistence to overcome that struggle. An example of a conventional hero's journey is "Baby" in Dirty Dancing. While she was guided by another, she ended up reaching a heightened point in her character (which was literally represented by her "lift" at the end of the film). However, not all hero's journeys are visible and could only be seen through analysis. That's where Django Unchained comes in.
Django Unchained initially represents itself as the sole story of Django and his "unchaining," or break from bondage. The opening credits present a downtrodden slave marching forward along to someone else's accord, yet the roaring, almost inciting music in the background argues that the hero "Django" is underneath that individual. You see, here is where the film's dissonance begins. And that dissonance causes the rift between the three stories. What? Three stories? That's right.
Django Unchained's story is broken into three acts: Django's Revenge, Schultz's Journey, and Django's Journey. Once again, these breaks in the story are caused by the contrasting tones of the film. The first act ends when Django kills the three brothers, and Schultz's act begins when they first meet Candie. You can tell the shift between Django and Schultz's stories thanks to the shift in tone. Django's stories are more camp, resulting in lines like "I like the way you die boy," the almost cartoonish violence (as seen in both of Django's gunfights, even more so during the finale), and the fact that "Big Daddy" exists. Schultz's tones are far more graphic with the Mandingo fights, and the slave being torn apart by dogs. This graphic shift between types of violence gives us a glimpse into Schultz's mysterious "persona." Since he's given us the idea behind personas, whose to say he hadn't adopted one during the entirety of the film? How much of himself was he truly revealing to Django? This mystery fuels the rest of the narrative.
Right after Django's juxtaposed visual, we have Dr. King Schultz's enigmatic introduction. Dr. Schultz automatically controls the story from that point on. He commands the attention of the viewer (which is no doubt attributed to Waltz's performance (which he got a silver medal for)), commands the direction of the story (he is the overseer and gives exposition), and takes Django as his "slave"/partner as a physical representation of that control. This is to let the viewer know that we're not in Django's story anymore, we're in Schultz's. Schultz's story is the result of the subtle dissonance within the story, therefore his journey is subtle. It is purely metaphysical.
To go back to Schultz's introduction, he's first a man who's willing to shoot's someone head off, shoot a man in front of his son, and shoot someone in front of a town full of people without a second thought as long as they are "bad guys." Schultz is given a vague character in order to vilify him. One poignant moment in the film is when Schultz asks Django to shoot a man in front of his son. Django initially argues against it, but Schultz comforts him and tells its okay because the man is a "bad guy." At this point, you're forced to wonder what kind of a man Schultz is. This moment provides the only concrete bit of Schultz's characterization for the first third of the film. This moment also serves to further remove Django from the "hero" role initially.
In every early interaction with Schultz, Django is almost childlike and remarkably more innocent than he should be. He's wide eyed (like when he takes than first sip of beer and listens to the story of Brumhilda), and takes on the persona of bounty hunter with childlike excitement and vigor (even donning the suit from "The Blue Boy"), therefore, it almost seems villainous how much power Schultz has over him. Schultz only claims Django for his own needs, keeps him in bondage despite his greater desires for equality, and his vague character doesn't make anything better. It's only when Schultz is confronted by another equally vague, yet dark character does Schultz reexamine himself.
Calvin Candie for all intent and purposes is a gentleman. He too, however, represents a dissonance. His courtly demeanor, fine attire, are contrasted by his ugly insides (represented by the fine layer of filth on his teeth). Sure Calvin Candie is the film's "villain," but what exactly does he do? Nothing with his own two hands. You can argue that he didn't present a threat until the dinner party where he places his hands on someone for the first time despite his heinous actions before that. Like Schultz, Candie is given a vague character. You don't exactly know what he's thinking, and in some ways, you can sympathize with the man. His answer to Schultz's betrayal is almost justified (and Schultz further ends up looking like a villain). When Schultz betrays him, Candie is distraught. He's spent a good amount of time with this man he thought he knew. He had an emotional investment from gentleman to gentleman. And yet, angry as he was, Candie still did nothing. He was willing to uphold a gentleman's agreement and give Schultz and Django their freedom.
Candie's demise is Schultz's peak of juxtaposition, and his turning point. In this moment, he embodies both the hero and villain. He's the villain for shooting down a man who essentially did nothing, yet he's the hero for striking down the film's "villain." But it all comes down to Schultz's words, "I couldn't help it." And it's important to understand what feelings compelled him, what caused that dramatic shift. When Schultz first tells Django they are going into Candyland (notably after Schultz has done all he needs to), this is the beginning of Schultz's hero's journey while Django's hasn't started yet.
When the slave is being torn apart by dogs, we see the first break in Schultz's poker face. His "persona" cracks when being assaulted by pure evil. He held together well during the Mandingo fights, but for some reason, it took this graphic notion to finally break him. What we didn't see, however, was Schultz began to change. Schultz was turning into the hero, someone who was going to kill someone for a reason other than to "sell their corpse." When he shoots Candie, and dies as a result of it, he does it because he couldn't help himself. His emotional turmoil of facing Candie, facing his villain, forced Schultz to give up the villain persona and become the hero. Although shooting Candie seems like a villainous act (thanks to Stephen brutally crying over Candie), Schultz has firmly rooted himself in the hero role by choosing a "valid" and "just" reason to kill.
After Schultz dies, and his hero's journey ends, the film continues for some reason. At first it's confusing, until you realize Django is still involved. While Schultz arguably has the better character and story, the film isn't billed as "Schultz Unchained." Django's story still needs to be told. Yet, it feels tacked on. Like an afterthought. And that's when the film goes bananas. It steeps itself within the cartoonish realm. Quentin Tarantino explodes (both figuratively and literally), ridiculous amounts of blood cover on screen, and Django becomes the hero he's billed to be. He becomes "the fastest gun in the West" only after Schultz's story ends, and Django is allowed to finish his.
Django gets his revenge early on (which is why Unchained is more than a revenge film) and only becomes the hero when he is allowed to make decisions for himself. His story feels tacked on, and almost unnecessary because the viewer has yet to see a story that isn't controlled by Schultz. Without Schultz's control, the film is allowed to explore different areas, reach different heights of tension, and explode in glorious violence and celebration (accentuated by an explosion). Is that why Schultz feels like the villain? Because he has so much control over the character (if you still have doubts over his amount of control, Schultz's first name is KING) designated for the "hero" role and then steals it from him? Possibly.
Yet, Django dons the burgundy and becomes the hero we expect him to be. Just by the end, it almost feels like his transformation was unearned. Django doesn't say or emote much, so how can we be sure he deserves a happy ending? We're not sure, and that's just fine because Django Unchained isn't really about Django, Candyland, the antebellum South, homages to the past, or even about needing "A HUNDRED BLACK COFFINS!"
It's all about Dr. King Schultz. The man who created the three stories in the first place.