Tension and Restraint: Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York and Django Unchained

Warning: This essay contains spoilers

In this essay I want to talk about two really important movies that came out within ten years of each other and the actor that appeared in both films: Leonardo DiCaprio. In Gangs of New York (2002), directed by Martin Scorsese (screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan), DiCaprio plays Amsterdam, who returns to New York City after living most of his young life in an orphanage. His father (Liam Neeson), leader of the Irish Catholic gang The Dead Rabbits, was murdered by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), leader of the Protestant Confederation of American Natives during a gang fight in Five Points. In Django Unchained (2012), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a Mississippi plantation owner. Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, along with the help of German dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), arrive at the plantation in order to obtain Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who works for Calvin as a house slave. It is important to note that, although Gangs of New York is a dramatic historical film and Django Unchained is a modernized Western, both films take place around the American Civil War and deal with race in ways that are extremely insightful and rare in cinema.

I saw both films in the theater and was enamored with not only the cinematography, but the way in which the story of each film was being told. When Gangs of New York came out, I had just completed my first semester of college at the University of Houston, and I thought it was—up to that point—the most important film I’d ever seen. It was nominated for ten Oscars and won zero Oscars, which angered me deeply, and is one of the reasons I do not pay much attention to the Academy Awards. In retrospect, this film is even more important than I thought it was at the time precisely because of how racism, politics, and poverty in New York City at the beginning of the Civil War were portrayed. I think it was a controversial film for that reason, because Scorsese (who had been trying to make Gangs of New York since the late seventies)[1] chose to show how volatile the North was during that time period, which made film elites—who like to think of the North as benevolent and the South as corrupt during the Civil War as the standard historical narrative—uncomfortable. When I saw Django Unchained in 2012, I had just applied to the MFA program at the University of Houston (and would be accepted into the program a few months later) and had the same feeling about it: this film is important. Although Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Christoph Waltz won for Best Supporting Actor, the film did not get the proper respect it deserved for the way in which Tarantino brilliantly intertwined slavery into the Western. However, my main focus for this essay will be on DiCaprio because the roles of Amsterdam and Calvin Candie are vital to both films.

The scene I have chosen for Gangs of New York takes place between Amsterdam and Bill and it is all dialogue. A little bit of context: As Amsterdam, Bill, and the rest of his associates disrupt a play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an unknown Irish man attempts to assassinate Bill, who is only injured in the shoulder area because Amsterdam pushed him out of the way just in time. It is later that night, and Bill is sitting in a chair next to Amsterdam, who is sitting up in bed. Bill has an American flag wrapped around his body. Here is the dialogue:

Bill: How old are you, Amsterdam?

Amsterdam: [Tries to think] Not too sure. Never did figure it.

Bill: I’m forty-seven. Forty-seven years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years…fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all in the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things…fear. That one tonight, who was he? A nobody…coward. What an ignominious end that would’ve been. I killed the last honorable man fifteen years ago, since then…You’ve seen his portrait downstairs?

Amsterdam: Mm-hmm.

Bill: Is your mouth all glued up with cunny juice? I asked you a question.

Amsterdam: [Speaks louder] I said I seen it, sir.

[Brief silence, then Bill chuckles]

Bill: Oh, you got a murderous rage in you and I like it. Life, boiling up inside of you, it’s good. The Priest and me, we lived by the same principles. It was only faith divided us. He give me this, you know [Points to the scar above his right eye]. That was the finest beating I ever took. My face was pulp, my guts was pierced, my ribs was all mashed up. When he came to finish me…I couldn’t look him in the eye…He spared me because he wanted me to live in shame. This was a great man. Great man. So I cut out the eye that looked away [Pretends to cut out his left eye]. Sent it to him wrapped in blue paper. I would’ve cut ‘em both out if I could’ve fought him blind. And I rose back up again with a full heart and buried him in his own blood.

Amsterdam: Well done.

Bill: He was the only man I killed worth remembering.

For Django Unchained I want to discuss the final confrontation between Dr. Schultz and Calvin Candie. It is a truly masterful scene, but it requires a bit of context. During dinner, Calvin Candie gives a brutally harsh speech about black inferiority (using phrenology as scientific justification) and demands Dr. Shultz pay twelve grand for Broomhilda, which he does. Afterward, while Calvin eats a slice of white cake in his private library, Dr. Shultz cleverly points out that Calvin, who had one of his slaves, D’Artagnan, fed the dogs earlier that day, named him after the main character of a novel (The Three Musketeers) written by a black man. Here is the dialogue that follows, along with some scene direction:

Dr. Schultz: [Points to a table] Are these Broomhilda’s papers?

Calvin: Yes they are.

Dr. Schultz: May I?

Calvin: Of course. [Extends his bandaged hand]

Dr. Shultz: Thank you. [Pulls out his glasses and walks over to the table]

[The camera zooms in on Calvin]

Calvin: That is her bill of sale, her ownership history, [Camera briefly shows Broomhilda and Calvin’s lawyer, Leonide Moguy, standing behind her, eating a slice of white cake] and of course her freedom papers, Doctor.

[Camera shows a zoomed out view of Dr. Shultz from the parlor, which is connected to the library]

Dr. Schultz: Would you have ink and pen for me?

[Camera zooms in on Calvin, who sits in his chair and points with his fork]

Calvin: Right over there on that little table.

Dr. Shultz: Thank you.

[The camera zooms out again as it shows Dr. Shultz walk across the room, then zooms in on him as he signs a paper. The camera zooms out again; Django, Stephen, and Mr. Pooch watch from the parlor as Dr. Schultz brings the paper for Calvin to sign. The camera zooms in on Calvin to show him signing the paper with a book being used as a hard surface. He hands the pen back to Dr. Schultz]

Dr. Shultz: Thank you.

[The camera shows a zoomed out view of the parlor where everyone stands and watches; the harp and candles are visible]

Dr. Schultz: Broomhilda von Shaft, [Holds out her freedom paper for her to see] consider yourself a free woman.

[Moguy continues to eat cake behind her; she looks over at Django, who looks back at her. Dr. Schultz folds the paper and stuffs it in his back pocket. The camera zooms in on Calvin, sitting in his chair, angry. The camera zooms in on Dr. Schultz]

Dr. Schultz: Mr. Candie, [Takes off his glasses] normally, I would say auf wiedersehen, [Camera zooms back in on Calvin’s angry face] but since what auf wiedersehen actually means is ‘til I see you again, [Camera zooms back in on Dr. Schultz, who slicks back his hair] and since I never wish to see you again, to you, sir, I say good-bye. [Dr. Schultz turns away and the camera focuses on Django] Let’s go.

Calvin: One more moment, Doctor. [Calvin lifts the finger of his bandaged hand in the air as he sits in his chair, facing away from the camera, positioned in the parlor]

Dr. Schultz: [Standing by the door in the parlor] What?

[Calvin rises from his chair and faces Dr. Shultz]

Calvin: It’s a custom here in the South, once a business deal is concluded, that the two parties shake hands. [Holds out his hand, grunts, smiles] It implies good faith.

Dr. Schultz: I’m not from the South. [Starts to leave]

Calvin: BUT YOU ARE in my house, Doctor. So, I’m afraid I must insist. [Continues to hold out his hand]

Dr. Schultz: Insist? On what? That I shake your hand? Oh, then I’m afraid I must insist in the opposite direction.

Calvin: You know what I think you are?

Dr. Schultz: What you think I am? No, I don’t.

Calvin: [Takes a step toward Dr. Schultz] I think you are a bad loser.

Dr. Schultz: And I think you are an abysmal winner.

Calvin: Nevertheless, in Chickasaw County, a deal ain’t done until the two parties have shook hands. Even after all that paper signing, don’t mean shit, you don’t shake my hand.

Dr. Schultz: [Sarcastic] If I don’t shake your hand, you gonna throw away twelve thousand dollars? I don’t think so.

The first thing I want to point out about both scenes is that they take place only a few years apart. Gangs of New York takes place at the start of the Civil War; Django Unchained takes place a few years before the Civil War. In each scene, racial tension is high. In Gangs of New York, Bill, who is a Nativist (born on American soil and believes in his own superiority as an American), is speaking to Amsterdam, who is the son of a murdered Irish immigrant, and is still very much Irish himself. In Django Unchained, Calvin Candie, the inheritor of a Mississippi plantation, confronts Dr. Schultz, an enlightened German who has just freed one of his slaves right in front of him, while Django, a freed man, and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin’s most trusted house slave, watch. With this context in mind, I want to take a look at how DiCaprio plays each character.

Starting with Amsterdam, it is important to note that DiCaprio doesn’t have very many lines; his main goal in this scene is to simply listen, to take in what Bill is telling him. Even more importantly, he is being made to listen to Bill tell him the story of how he finally killed his father and he cannot show any emotion whatsoever. In this scene, Bill is still very much in control even though he has been shot; he wears the American flag around his shoulders to emphasize his authority. Amsterdam is in a vulnerable position in this moment because even though Bill is opening up to him, Bill is the one who has taken him under his wing, and he is also the man responsible for his father’s death; the man he wants to kill. All of this tension exists within Amsterdam’s silence. So, for me, this scene is intensified by what Amsterdam is feeling more than it is by what Bill is telling him. I think DiCaprio plays up that silent tension with the right amount of guardedness and vulnerability, which helps to signal to viewers that Bill—although a revered, but mostly feared, leader of Five Points—is not as powerful as he believes. In Django Unchained, DiCaprio plays a character whose delusions about his superiority are reinforced by a system that functions on slavery. In an interview Tarantino gave after the film came out, he wanted it to be understood that according to Calvin, as well as those who live and work on Candyland (the name of his plantation)—white and black alike—slavery is a permanent condition.[2] However, in this particular scene, as Dr. Schultz frees Broomhilda right in front of Calvin, there is a sudden realization that slavery is not a permanent condition—that his slaves can be freed, and he does not have the absolute power he believes he has. When he demands that Dr. Schultz shake his hand, he is using Southern manners as a way to reestablish his power over the situation. Here, Calvin is the source of tension, and DiCaprio utilizes that tension by embodying a man who is desperate for an ego boost, but won’t show it. Here, what he doesn’t say is even more powerful than what he does say.

I think this is what makes DiCaprio a gifted actor, his ability to make great use of tension within a scene, through silence, or through simple speech and subtle action. I have always thought of DiCaprio as being an excellent dramatic actor, and those moments are abundant in both films, but here, in these scenes, what I love so much about them is how he pulls back from the dramatic and acts through restraint. Neither Amsterdam nor Calvin can be honest about their predicaments: one wants to avenge his dead father and the other wants to maintain his power as a slave owner even as one of his slaves is being freed right before him. I’m also impressed by how DiCaprio can play characters at opposite ends of the spectrum but utilize the same skills (tension and restraint) to great effect. Although Daniel Day-Lewis took most of the awards for his role as Bill, and as complex and interesting and controversial as his character is, it is important to understand that DiCaprio’s character has more to live for, more to fight for than Bill does. And so I think his role was overlooked in that sense. He was not as dramatic as Bill, but he was more passionate and more driven. I also believe his role as Calvin Candie got overlooked because it was probably difficult for viewers and critics to see what was really happening underneath the surface of his character: the threat of annihilation. If he is seen through that lens, he becomes more transparent: a patriarchal inheritor of wealth (earned through cash crops and slave-labor) that is about to be at odds with a changing economy. When Dr. Schultz confronts Calvin about his ignorance (not realizing Alexandre Dumas is black) and Calvin demands a handshake to complete the deal they just made, Dr. Schultz hits the center of the issue with one statement: “If I don’t shake your hand, you gonna throw away twelve thousand dollars? I don’t think so.” Calvin’s primary concerns are monetary in nature because his entire way of life is based off of the labor of others (slaves). This is felt rather than seen through the tension DiCaprio embodies because he is also having to apply restraint, because his character’s other concern is his ego.

I think these are DiCaprio’s best roles because he effectively portrayed characters that are highly complex and operate within film narratives that explore tremendously brutal environments: the North and the South at the beginning and before the Civil War. In these particular scenes, DiCaprio has to apply the less-is-more strategy to get his characters’ points across; this makes them incredibly compelling as outwardly tough individuals with underlying vulnerabilities rather than well-put-together men who speak and make brilliant points. Amsterdam has one goal in mind: to avenge his father, and he sees it through no matter how difficult things get for him on a personal and environmental level. Many might view Calvin Candie as well-put-together, but I do not. He does not speak French, he does not know Dumas is black, he uses pseudoscience to justify why blacks don’t kill whites, and in general cannot face the reality of his life—that he is merely living out the same life his father and grandfather lived before him; he is a copy of a copy, not a true individual, and in this way, he mirrors his slaves, who lack humanity due to their enslavement, who are caught up in a vicious cycle of suffering and violence. This is not to justify Calvin Candie, but to accurately place him within the context of his time: a white man held back by patriarchy, racism, and ignorance. I admire Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor because he embodies this knowledge without having to show it; he can take on big characters with big contexts around them and use tension and restraint as a way to express a character’s true nature. He can play a hero and a villain and humanize them both because he knows when to give it his all, and when to pull back.

September 12, 2022

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omZxAToHz74

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1QpScB-HJg