Django Unchained lets Tarantino loose with a bloody tale of race and revenge in antebellum America


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Is there a more outwardly exciting director at work today than Quentin Tarantino?

It’s been three years since the release of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionist history cum Spaghetti Western account of Nazi killers and vengeful Jews in occupied France, and a further fifteen since he arguably created a whole new type of cinema with Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s brand –  pop culture spectacular, let’s call it, has been aped by many others along the way, but never bettered.

Focused yet bursting with energy, mordant yet light-footed, and of course, endlessly quotable, “Tarantinoesque” is now a powerful adjective in the cinematic lexicon. Here we have Django Unchained: Tarantino’s slavery revenge flick – Spaghetti Western meets Blaxploitation, a Western taking place south of the Mason-Dixon and before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) is, as the title suggests, a man in bondage. His skin’s the wrong color in a time and place where nothing but that seems to matter; his life, according to the history books, is destined to be one of brutality and hardship. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Tarantino has never been one for sticking to the history books.

Along comes Doctor King Schultz (two-time Tarantino collaborator and 2009 Best Supporting Actor winner, Christoph Waltz), a former dentist turned bounty hunter, who offers Django his freedom in return for a hand tracking down a trio of fugitive cattle rustlers with whom Django – if you’ll pardon the pun – has beef.

So begins a tale that will take the unlikely pair the length and breadth of the Old West, encompassing a volume of blood to shame The Wild Bunch and enough instances of “the N-word” to give Spike Lee an aneurysm.

Hanging over the film is, of course, the pall of slavery. Tarantino’s tackled controversial subjects before – the secondary protagonist in Basterds was, as mentioned, a Jewish woman whose family was massacred by the Nazis – but never in such a head-on way.

Tarantino, for all his renown, has never been greatly concerned with tact. Still, is Django, at its core, any more exploitative than, say, The Pianist: they might handle their “material” – my apologies for such a crude term – to much different effect, but both ultimately seeks to illustrate and dramatize the historical injustices that provoked their creation.

The danger is that Tarantino, as a director, is developing a track record of such projects. If you take Kill Bill, Parts 1 and 2, as a feminist revenge film, then he’s spent almost the last decade viscerally rooting for the underdog. It’s not difficult to imagine that a Tarantino project may well in the none-too-distant future feature a Native American protagonist in the early 19th Century.

Questions of ethics and canon aside, is Django Unchained a “good” movie?

Well, Scorsese may have his Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme may draw his cues from Roger Corman’s B-movies, but no one’s influences are as eclectic and far-ranging as Tarantino’s, nor do they feed into their work in quite the same way. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in Pulp Fiction is lifted whole cloth from Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie and here Tarantino transplants elements from Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Westerns to the antebellum South – Django even has Jean-Louis Trintignant’s hat.However, this is more than simple pastiche: this is film as seamless homage.

If there’s a touch of Frankenstein’s Monster to all Tarantino’s films, safe to say you can never see the stitches. Furthermore, while retaining the same freshness and vitality, I feel it’s clear that Tarantino – no longer the callow hotshot who, as a video store employee, once recommended Au revoir les enfants to a passing customer, but rather a seasoned auteur of 49 – continues to mature as a director.

In Django, more so than any other of his films, there’s the sense of Tarantino giving the material room to breathe. It’s slower paced, occasionally languid even – in the opening scene, the camera focuses in on a group of slaves being led by their horse-riding owners across a rocky plain, a move of a breadth and scope unimaginable in even Basterds.

The dialogue is more relaxed and scenes are allowed to unfold in their own good time. If you enjoyed the twenty-minute dialogue sequence between the genial but deadly Colonel Landa (Waltz) and a wary farm owner in Tarantino’s other most recent work, you’ll find a lot to love here.

That’s not to say that it’s slow-paced nor heavy-handed: the film delves into the myriad abuses perpetuated against the black population in 1850s America and makes vivid display of the violence that formed part of their everyday lives, but manages to ever avoid feeling worthy, preachy, or, even more impressively, gratuitous.

There’s also a lot of beauty here, in spite of and perversely often because of the bloodshed. An arresting image highlighted in the trailer campaign – that of blood spattering across cotton bolls – is only one such example. A strange comparison that comes to mind, particularly in a scene where a misbehaving slave is removed from “the hotbox” – a metal box fixed in the earth and left to bake in the sun – and dragged back towards the house, is that of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: there’s the same fascination with the past, the same attention to detail, though the milieu may be far removed.

I’ve heard it said, not least by Tarantino himself, is the classic story of a man’s search for his lost love; if so, due to the time and place in which the star-crossed lovers find themselves and the color of their skin, it’s at quest drenched in blood.

On a side note, it’s worrying how quickly you become accustomed to hearing racial epithets; Tarantino lulls you into a world where such casual prejudice is the norm and it takes a man like Django to put it right. Tarantino never forgets that cinema is to entertain; leave educating to the documentaries. There’s no doubt that Django is entertaining.

The moral slate contained within is pretty black and white: black folks, one notable instance aside, are decent and downtrodden; white people are either outright evil or else complicit and all deserve death. Only the fundamentally good Doctor King escapes judgment, but, for a film that explicitly condones the wholesale slaughter of white slave owners, it never seems unduly distasteful.

Tarantino has previously announced his intention to make a biopic about the life of abolitionist John Brown, a white man who famously advocated and carries out acts of violence in defiance of slavery, and who is often called America’s first domestic terrorist. Tarantino’s message is unmistakeable here: sometimes negotiation is simply not possible, sometimes you’ve just gotta kill a whole bunch of mothaf***ers.

The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was passed less than a decade later – documented in another big film released this year, similarly featuring one of my favorite TV actors Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield) – does little to detract from this. President Woodrow Wilson apparently spoke positively in saying of D. W. Griffith’s notoriously pro-Clansmen The Birth of a Nation that it was like “writing history with lightning”; Django Unchained goes some way towards redressing the balance.

Indeed, a sequence featuring Clansmen-like figures, a posse riding against Django and Schultz, is played for comedy: they’re portrayed, not exactly unfairly, as a bunch of self-righteous cowards incapable of even cutting eye holes in their masks for themselves.

Jonah Hill, nominated for an Oscar last year for Moneyball, features as an unnamed Clansman, and Franco Nero, who played a character called Django in Corbucci’s Django – followed by a further fifteen actors in almost thirty sequels – makes an appearance as a bar patron enquiring as to Foxx’s name.

Foxx puts in solid work as the title character, empowered over the course of the film into a gun-slinging bad-ass. Unlike nearly all of Tarantino’s other protagonists, we never get the sense of really getting to know Django: he spends a great deal of the film “in character” as a black slave trader, and, though we know what he wants, there’s little sense of who he is or where he comes from.

This is, perhaps, appropriate given the muteness of the equivalent figure in Corbucci’s The Great Silence. The surrounding cast are mostly “types”: the intense Django; the wry and charming Schultz; Django’s wife, the beautiful and vulnerable Broomhilda ( Kerry Washington); and the lascivious Calvin Candie (played with joyful aplomb by Leonardo DiCaprio). In lesser hands, these roles could have devolved into caricatures, as always seem to be the threat with Tarantino’s work, but, again, as always, the actors he works with and the performances he coaxes from them bring out the best from the work.

As yet unmentioned is Samuel L. Jackson in his forth collaboration with Tarantino (lest we forget his cameo roles in both Basterds and Kill Bill, Part 2). Jackson plays Stephen, the head slave in the Candie household. While Calvin is away on business, Stephen de facto lord of the manor – he raised Candie from a child and speaks to him on equal terms when the two of them are alone (“Thank you, Stephen. No, you’re welcome, Calvin.”) His age and initial appearance of irascible befuddlement conceals a sharp wit and terrifying fury.

Stephen’s powers of observation and mastery of the household rise to the fore in a tense dinner scene in which it is he, and not Calvin, who comes to the realization that Schultz and Django are playing them. Tarantino never tries to garner sympathy for Stephen, who, alternately servile and acidulous, is presented as a reprehensible, conniving figure, nor, to his credit, Django, who does what he does out of love and necessity.

DiCaprio, meanwhile, exudes superficial charm and seething menace as Candie, master of Candieland and newest owner of Broomhilda, while the role of Schultz must have been written for Waltz, not only due to it’s Germanic overtones.

My only regret in this regard is loss of a scene in the shooting script between Stephen and Django, whom, as Candie adroitly notes, are bound to hate each other; Jackson bubbles, Foxx simmers – the would-be Spartacist against, in the parlance of the times, a mean ole Uncle Tom. There is a lot of history behind the two of them, in the broadest sense of the world, and, in an ideal world, it would have been nice to see it given a little more screen time.

Tarantino writes good villains: unambiguous, mostly unsympathetic, but with a degree of complexity. They are mannered monsters, but Calvin Candie, as with Hans Landa, has a thick seam of nastiness to him. Discourses on phrenology, weighted hammer in hand, are just a thin overlay over outright sadism. Just as in Basterds when – spoiler – the usually charming Landa brutally throttles the unfortunate Bridget von Hammersmark to death, Candie’s bloodied hand (unintentional if set reports are to be believed) is a potent reminder of the atrocities these men have and will continue to commit.

In essence, Candie is nothing but a sociopath with bad teeth and a carnation. As in the latter, however, turnaround is fair play, and, for the sake of the audience’s enjoyment I will leave it at that (almost). Suffice it to say, the abrupt change in action at the end of the film’s second act, amazing and almost out of left field as it is, just about works; at the very least, we understand why.

As with all of Tarantino’s films, there’s a great, as per usual deliberately anachronistic soundtrack that ranges from Johnny Cash to hip hop. It does take you out of the moment somewhat to hear an obviously contemporary voice singing “Now I’m not afraid to do the Lord’s work. You said vengeance is His, but I’mma do it first”, but in the context of the film it works.

Tarantino’s films are nothing if not artifacts of cool: effect comes first, historical verisimilitude a distant whatever. The status and power plays in Django Unchained are perfect fodder for Tarantino to showcase his revolutionary aesthetic and attitudes (and to turn in his contractual cameo, in this case as an Antipodean mining company employee). You feel his passion for the subject, however, for all those victims of history: a movie geek from Tennessee might not feel like the natural choice for a defender of the suppressed, the marginalized, but, in terms of pop culture, it’s most successful.

Tarantino is, in my opinion, as much a populist as Spielberg, albeit with a whole different approach to cinema and something more of an obsession with his hit-to-miss ratio.  He recently gave an interview decrying directors whose work declines with age and yet who continue to churn out films.

It’s a shame to think that he might be on his way out, artistically speaking: a particular shootout from Django where wave after wave of near identical white gunmen are mowed down by the hero draws from, albeit knowingly, the best of Peckinpah, as gobbets of blood erupt from wounds, permanently rouging the decor.

There are also some light touches of Natural Born Killers to the ending, an early script Tarantino wrote but never got the chance to direct; sooner or later, with it’s consumption and artful regurgitation of cinema classic and pop culture, Tarantino’s work must come full circle. Till then, we’ll be watching.

This piece is long enough without further digression. I’ll simply say that Django Unchained is smart, funny, and often beautiful – Tarantino remains a premiere director and writer, and, despite all the hype and controversy surrounding it, this is a worthy addition to canon of the pop culture spectacular.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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