01/02/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

In Search of the Good Shepherd: Quentin Tarantino and the Annihilation of History

Toward the end of Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film, "Pulp Fiction," the character of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, experiences what he considers to be a miracle. Jackson's character, a ruthless hit man, who recites verses from the Book of Ezekiel before murdering his victims, is spared certain death when one of his intended targets opens fire on Jules from pointblank range -- missing him every time. As Jules reassesses his life in the aftermath of this incident, he not only comes to an awareness that somehow "God got involved" to save him, but that he is now under a moral and ethical obligation to put his past behind and lead a righteous life. In making the decision at the end of "Pulp Fiction" to spare the life of a bumbling criminal, Jackson's character acknowledges his evil past. Yet he views Ezekiel's words that he once recited to his victims in a new light, acknowledging that in the future he will "try real hard to be the shepherd."

Part of what makes "Pulp Fiction" a great film is the way that the movie engages complex theological questions -- theodicy, redemption and grace/forgiveness -- with intelligence, humor and earnestness that transcends the violence and language one encounters on the screen. Through a postmodern lens of nonlinear sequences and less-than-savory characters, Tarantino makes the audience ponder a range of concrete questions about life, death and the moral-ethical paths we choose. For all of the ways that Tarantino has continued to make engaging films that mix and match an eclectic range of cinematic genres, the sophisticated moral-ethical reflection that one finds in a film like "Pulp Fiction" is missing -- a pattern that characterizes his latest film, "Django Unchained."

Even before its release, "Django" was heralded by some as Tarantino's best, and most controversial, film. Set a few years before the Civil War and employing a cinematic format of a 1960s "Spaghetti Western," Tarantino tells the story of how a former slave, Django (played by Jamie Foxx) becomes a bounty hunter and searches for his wife who has been sold to a ruthless plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). The film immediately drew sharp criticism, notably Spike Lee who saw the movie as denigrating the suffering of African-American slaves. While some like Lee believed Tarantino trivialized the historical evils of slavery, others countered how the film depicts an empowering narrative for African Americans who through the main character of Django were able to outsmart their white oppressors. "Django" has what I've come to expect from a Tarantino film: a creative use of cinematic genre, copious violence and ultimately the vindication of the film's hero, Django.

My main criticism of "Django Unchained" is not so much the film's violence (it comes with the territory in any Tarantino film), its use of racially charged language or even its dubious interpretation of the past. My criticism is that the film doesn't allow its audience room to interpret the past. Tarantino is not unique in bending history to fit the artistic imagination of the filmmaker. Yet "Django" takes historical relativity to an extreme. Like his previous films, Tarantino's uses music to set a comedic mood for the audience, ranging from a corny western movie soundtrack, to contemporary rap, and even throwing in a 1970s soft rock Jim Croce ballad for good measure. In effect, viewers are anesthetized from the severity of the historical context. In one scene, Django and his bounty hunter partner, Dr. Schultz (played by Christopher Waltz), are pursued by a mob that wears Klu Klux Klan white hoods. As the mob prepares to ambush Django and Schultz, they get into an argument about the suitability of wearing hoods, as it makes it difficult for them to see. Beyond the fact that the KKK was not formed until after the Civil War, the scene left me uneasy. Used skillfully, humor can be a powerful weapon of social critique. Yet Tarantino uses it to reduce historical evil to fantasies that exist only in film.

Most people who see "Django" will hopefully recognize that the antebellum South was nothing like it's portrayed in this film. Yet Tarantino makes it difficult for a viewer to want to unearth and understand the evils of slavery -- and how Americans have been striving for centuries to find collective meaning from the sins of this troubled past. In "Django Unchained," as was the case with his previous film, "Inglorious Basterds," redemption is achieved solely through gun point. At times, Jamie Foxx's character seems more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone action hero, as opposed to anything coming out of a movie western. As the film's chief villain, only DiCaprio's character gives a hint into the historical evils of slavery, yet one recognizes even before DiCaprio makes his first onscreen appearance that his fate will be the same as other "bad guys" in the movie. At film's end, there are no characters left standing, like Jules in "Pulp Fiction," who can raise ethical questions for the audience about good and evil, redemption or anyone who strives to follow Jules' path as a righteous shepherd. (Ironically, in "Django," Samuel L. Jackson plays the role of Stephen, Candie's house slave who at moments comes across as the antebellum version of Jules from "Pulp Fiction," but with nothing redeemable.)

As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino embodies the postmodern mindset that sees little that is sacred about the past. Yet in a nation that is trying to make sense of real life evil, epitomized by the recent school shooting in Newtown, the moral universe represented by "Django Unchained" needs to be challenged. "Django Unchained" might leave many audiences entertained, but it pushes us further away from an engagement with a nation's troubled past that someday might make authentic redemption possible.