Caveat off the top: this isn’t so much a theory as it is a questioning of the denouement in Django Unchained. I’m talking about the scene right after Dr. King Schultz (Christolph Waltz) murders Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio), leading to Django’s (Jamie Foxx) capture. The scene where Django is hanging upside down about to be castrated by Billy Crash (Walter Goggins). This scene calls attention to itself, and not just because it’s a par for the course Tarantino torture moment involving male genitalia.
It’s impossible to ignore the implausibility that, at the last minute, Django is spared a horrible fate. Historically speaking, there is roughly zero percent chance of that ever happening. Of course, Django isn’t set in a realistic version of our past, and in fiction, anything can happen. I’m just saying, even for Tarantino, a generous suspension of disbelief was required to get through that deus ex machina moment. The choice to conveniently extend Django’s life bothers me from a storytelling perspective; it’s just too easy.
Tarantino knows this. Could it be that we, the audience, are missing something? I submit to you, the possibility that Django was killed right after Dr. Schultz, and that the rest of the film is his dream from the afterlife. While I’m (sort of) making this argument, knowing Tarantino, this was not his intention. Never in his career has he presented a scene as anything but literal.
Still, I can’t help notice a striking similarity to the Jorge Luis Borges story, The South, the ending to which has been famously debated. Specifically, regarding whether or not the protagonist fails to perceive his own death within the narrative, leading to an ending as unlikely as it is satisfying, that could just as easily be real or imagined. Borges himself said both interpretations were defensible, without stating his explicit intention.
I wonder if Tarantino could admit the same of his work.
Would a differently choreographed action sequence immediately following Schultz’s death, in which Django gets his retribution on Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and the rest of Calvin’s entourage, before blowing up Candy Land and escaping with Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) have better served the film? Did Tarantino think this would appear rushed, and equally preposterous? Or, could it simply be that he knew the near castration scene was too good to pass up?
He took a big risk by including it. Bondage slavery is one of the most uncomfortable subjects to portray, and to Tarantino’s credit, that scene reflects the skin-crawling unease of its subject with every shot and interaction. It’s also a great metaphor for American slavery: a social system that gave white men control over black mens’ well-being, their ability to create life and their mortality. The very situation Django finds himself in with Billy.
The scene is essential, so what’s my beef? I can’t help feeling the sequence before Django arrives back at Candy Land sags in the middle, and there’s no getting past that lazy bit of storytelling just to have that one incredible scene between Django and Billy. Once he’s back at the plantation, Django’s final showdown is fantastic. The dialogue, the action, the humor…all vintage Tarantino. And the payoff of having our hero ride off after a flawless victory is just the ending the film needed. If Django was dead the whole time, this ending wouldn’t work as well, and that is perhaps the best evidence against the untimely death interpretation. And yet, the interpretation holds water, and that might be the best evidence in its favor. There’s a logic to it, even if it results in a conclusion that’s a lot less jubilant. Ambiguity here creates two distinct emotional endings, while in Borges’ The South, the result is somehow the same regardless of how you read it.
I don’t like all of his choices, but I respect Tarantino for taking risks. I’ve heard it said that he won’t take criticism anymore, that no one can save him from his own decisions. Since longtime film editor and collaborator Sally Menke’s passing, maybe there’s some truth to that. But at the end of the day, all any of us viewers have to go on is the work itself; and the work stands. Maybe he’s not trying to please audiences anymore, only himself. I don’t have to like it, but I can respect it. Lucky for me, I do still like it. Really all I’m saying is, Quentin Tarantino can’t help but be a great filmmaker, and I’d like you to fuckin’ acknowledge it.