Death and the Modern Western in 'True Grit' and 'Django Unchained'
by Tyler Wantuch
February 18, 2013
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino stormed into the mainstream with the dark, twisted world of Pulp Fiction. Two years later, another powerful and independent-minded duo of directors gripped audiences with their own dark comedy set in the far north, Fargo. The Coen Brothers and Tarantino have since been turning genre after genre upside down by tearing them apart and then blending them into single films. Now in 2012 we find the Coen Brothers and Tarantino have both decided to take on a similar classic genre. This time, the Coen Brothers would come first with their 2010 remake of the classic John Wayne Western True Grit, and Tarantino would follow suit two years later with his own homage to the genre in Django Unchained.
Both films rehash the "realities" of the old west while once again pushing the envelope on story and genre. The two films' deepest correlation is found in the disrespect and the banality of death. The Coens' version is a methodical meditation on the subject. True Grit begins and ends with death. The overall message is that of revenge. Our heroine Mattie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is driven by the logic of a corpse for a corpse. The film is plagued by death scene after death scene, and the audience is then forcefully reminded of the loss of life through additional images of each and every corpse the heroes encounter. This flies in the face of traditional Westerns, in which the actor's role ends with a dramatic death scene.
Instead, in this modern re-telling, the dead stay dead. Their rotting bodies re-enter the screen reminding us they have paid the ultimate price. It's as if the Coens were miffed about the lack of corpses after a good ole fashioned shoot out and were compelled to include even the most inconsequential players' bodies. This imagery of death coupled with Mattie's raw intentions of revenge present a much more realistic world of hardship. She must be resourceful beyond her age in order to survive, let alone accomplish her bleak mission of killing her father's murderer. True Grit takes place in a world where death is lurking on every beaten path, and one in which death is a serious situation that can't be escaped by a scene change.
Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge film, Django Unchained, mirrors this sentiment but, in typical Tarantino style, he mixes two mindsets on death and pushes the boundaries of the genre. He first explores death as the traditional western shoot-'em-up style, which he expands on in such gory detail it makes me wonder if Tarantino spent a third of his budget on squibs and fake blood. He fills his screen with over-the-top explosive gunshot wounds that spray cotton fields bright red. These stylized deaths still claim the glory and respect the western genre intended. Being gunned down in a blaze of bullets is a fitting and honorable end to any farmhand, no matter how big the blood splatter.
Underneath the sunset rides and other traditional western sequences, Tarantino hides a much darker, more Coen-like disrespectful world of death. A world in which mandingo fighting happens in the parlor and castration happens in the barn. A world so bleak that plantation owners look on while another human is ripped apart by a pack of dogs. To further pour salt into the wound, we repeatedly find the loss of a slave's life is glossed over with a joke and a tall beer. It's in these moments the horror of slavery mixed with the banality of death is found. By glossing over death and subsequently disrespecting the dead, the directors create a scene much more terrifying than any bloody gunfight. Django Unchained's white Southerners appear to have lost any trace of humanity. They live their disgusting lives with the sole purpose of degrading and even destroying their own property.
The correlations don't end there. In an eerie happenstance, both filmmakers chose to center their films on pairs of unlikely partners. In both cases, the steady, powerful lead is a white male whose profession is connected with both the law and murder. These men, Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and Dr. Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), are both bounty hunters whose shoot first tactics not only garner results but also blur the lines between lawful and criminal. This dichotomy is crucial to the plot in both films; the leads must be ruthless killers who also have a heart.
Both stories would sputter out without their acts of compassion. Long gone is the outdated ruthless bounty hunter; instead we are presented with the compassionate gun-for-hire. They are deeper characters whose mindsets are closer to our own. It's no accident Schultz despises slavery and believes in true love or Rooster fought for the North and has a moral obligation to the safety of Mattie. The filmmakers need these men to highlight the inhumanity of the time by filling them with humanity.
The subjects of the bounty hunters' compassion are similar as well. Neither Django (played by Jamie Foxx) nor Mattie have any social standing in their society, being a black man and a young girl respectively. Their lack of social rank gives our filmmakers a tool that allows them to explore the rigid stereotypes of the time and slice through them. A black man riding a horse and a little girl set on revenge are all met by the world with disdain. Both are heavily motivated by revenge, yet Django's level of rage and thirst for blood soon far exceed Mattie's. Still, we find both are very capable of pulling the trigger and seemingly have no lasting guilt or interest in forgiveness. Django even one-ups Mattie by pretending to be a black slaver and feigns inhumanity in order to accomplish his goals. These matching duos reaffirm both films' premises that death doesn't mean much in the old west. We find that even the most compassionate men kill for a living and the lowest of social classes (slaves and children) also desire to and are capable of murder.
The two films' pacing, language, and mise en scène are worlds apart, but at the heart we find two revisionist westerns concerned with the darker horrors of America's past. They are littered with the aftermath of cold-hearted killings and disrespect for life. Tarantino's vision shocks and appalls its viewers with its blunt straightforward theatrics of inhumanity, while the Coens' world engrains visions of death via subtle hints and themes. Both present visions of outlaw justice with compassionate murderers and sadistic white folk.
But why would modern filmmakers still be interested in such a task? In the 1970s, a flood of directors set out to redefine westerns: George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and Arthur Penn (Little Big Man). These directors brought the glossy earlier westerns deeper into reality. They filled the screen with violence, realistic dialogue, and of course moments of inhumanity. As if that wasn't enough, the 1990s saw another surge of "modern" westerns that presented a harder edged "action-western". Both Unforgiven and Tombstone discussed such heavy themes as gender, corruption, and even revenge in the frontier. So why did the Coens and Tarantino rehash this topic?
Their motives are rooted in their own love for cinema. They are such great admirers of film history they are methodically plowing through each and every genre and "Coen-izing" it or "Tarantino-ing" them. Their purpose is less about redefining the genre or even about making a buck; instead, it seems there is more personal gratification for these men. They tackled westerns because they wanted to. These directors have proven themselves to critics, audiences, and studios over the past 20 years and are now allowed to make whatever they like. No matter how self-indulgent the films are these directors are free to cover any genre and run up a ridiculously long runtime. These men are connected by their own history and their shared appreciation for film history. With their artistic freedom on full display we can only expect both will cover even more genres, and fans will be delighted with each new genre revision.