Spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk.
In the very last moment of Django Unchained Hildy grabs a rifle.** The movie follows her husband, Django (Jamie Foxx), on his quest to save her. Saved, Hildy (Kerry Washington) must learn to save herself, and/or her husband.
But we have to imagine that future, because Django is a movie about revenge. Vengeance achieved, it ends.
There’s been a lot said about Django, about slavery, race and Hollywood. That’s to be expected. Tarantino’s movies are always stuffed with stuff, and their release gives him and cultural commentators an excuse to talk about everything. But leaving the theater for Django I had little to say. I was satisfied. Racists got their due. That’s always satisfying. Applause (mostly from black people)!
I could hear faint applause at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, when Usama Bin Laden is shot and killed. Vengeance gets applause from the avengers. It comes at the end of the movie, after all, when we’ve been waiting for it for 150 minutes. But where Django satisfies, Zero Dark Thirty bores. A plot with thin characters and scant politics, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t earn bin Laden’s assassination. We know its coming, and the film adds little meaning to his death.
In being boring, Zero Dark Thirty is instructive. Ultimately, revenge is a dull and pointless enterprise if you know how it’ll end.
For his part Tarantino has proven himself a skilled avenger by twisting the ends. Think of the extensive final scene of Kill Bill, or the historical fantasy of Inglorious Basterds. Django‘s fiery bloodbath is how Americans want slavery to end — just as the end of Basterds is how every American wants World War II to end. That is: cleanly, with obvious perpetrators punished and everyone else mostly fine. Tarantino’s non-history makes the journey seem worth it. It distracts us from the real history that followed the ends of slavery and WWII: complicated, where Americans are not the good guys. It’s not always worth it.
The characters in Zero Dark Thirty are tense and ornery in their pursuit of bin Laden, especially our heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain). They face death. They argue. They torture. It all seems so vital.
With bin Laden dead, Maya gets a big plane to go wherever she wants.
The pilot asks her: “Where do you want to go?”
Maya has no reply. She cries.
Like the image of Hildy grabbing a gun, it’s the beginning of a more interesting movie. Once you have vengeance, what’s next? Indeed when bin Laden was killed, America rejoiced. Applause!
Yet the circumstances were fraught, to start. His location was known in Pakistan, close to a military academy. More still, we flew into a country and assassinated people, without permission, something we’ve grown accustomed to with the drone war (imagine our response if another country routinely and ostentatiously killed Americans on U.S. soil, without due process). These are political decisions whose repercussions are decidedly not over. It’s a story that’s much richer and more consequential than our decade-long manhunt for one man.
In that quest, we forgot to examine our own actions, from the expansion of the military to our forfeiture of civil liberties. Of course Maya is lost. She hunted the enemy so furiously she failed to notice the path.
Consider, as another example, the disappointing second season of Homeland, that other story of a woman defending the nation. Fans kept watching because we weren’t sure if the CIA would ever get Abu Nazir and how much damage he’d inflict before they did. Toward the end of the second season, with Abu Nazir on the run, the show’s loose foundation was exposed. Brody and Carrie are an interesting couple, but not enough to sustain the series. The writers spent little time probing the politics of the CIA, its expanded powers in a post-9/11 world. What is Homeland about, anyway, aside from America needing to win?
And yet, unlike in film, TV goes on, and everyone, including Televisual‘s skeptical critic, will still watch. What comes after vengeance is always more interesting.
Zero Dark Thirty is boring because the whole real-life enterprise — revenge, in the name of homeland security — has not made us more safe or feel better. We’re still at war. America’s enemies still hate.
Because unlike in Tarantino movies, in the real world, you can’t just pump 50 bullets into your enemy, burn the house down, and walk away, satisfied.
There is no end in life. Vengeance feels nice, but all it ensures is whatever comes next, comes back.
**It’s possible I misperceived that silhouetted moment, or I am imagining it. That said, even if it didn’t happen, Hildy will no doubt have to know how to use a gun as a black woman riding a horse through the South.