Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Twenty years since the release of Reservoir Dogs, his first major success and an iconic piece of modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino continues to make movies which surprise, shock, and occasionally sicken. Primarily, they entertain. The easily offended, sensitive or snobbish may dominate the discussion of much of his work, not least this latest film. But he continues to make modern masterpieces of evocative, culturally significant and memorable cinema.
The story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave sold cheap for marrying and unsuccessfully running away with his new wife, begins when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty-hunt, purchases him for his knowledge of the Brittle Brothers; plantation workers and targets for the German assassin. The slave-and-master dynamic soon shifts as the two become partners in hunting criminals and murders, with Django demonstrating a natural gun-slinging talent to rival the intelligence and cunning of his partner. There is only one motivation for Django in his freedom however: to find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he discovers belongs to the slimy and brutal Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Not only do the extreme racist controllers of his plantation, Candyland, work the slaves, but some black women are used as prostitutes and selected men are made to take part in ‘Mandingo fights’ – a bare-knuckled brawl to the death. It is from this extreme climate that Django and Schultz plot to liberate Broomhilda, but when the suspicions of loyal (and fervently racist) head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) are aroused, the film takes a turn towards over-the-top comic violence, as Django fights for freedom and vengeance.
Django Unchained is a movie of shifting, unstable appearances. A dentist collecting bounties; an ex-slave dressed like Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. There are slaves with the authority of masters, and white men taunted as servile. More than a few of the laughs come from the reactions of various characters to seeing the unthinkable: a “n***** on a horse”. Similarly, Tarantino has been keen to stress the film as a spaghetti western, but one which deals with real American history. Taking the name of Franco Nero’s lone gunner in Corbucci’s classic Django (with the actor making a welcome cameo here) is just one homage to the European western; but there is significantly more to this film than pastiche or appropriation. Foxx and Waltz as Django and Schultz play out an unconventional but dynamic and believable partnership, and for the first hour or so, the film is much more of a buddy road movie than Leone loner affair. The final hour also gives way to Tarantino’s other favourite genre: the revenge thriller, prevalent in every film since Kill Bill Vol. 1. And of course, he can’t resist dabbling in a little B-Movie shoot-out gore. We are in familiar territory here, even if it doesn’t always feel so.
As ever, Tarantino’s writing is sharp, classy, and certainly intended to provoke. The dialogue is smooth, with no opportunity for a clever line or gag missed. Of course, the subject matter is controversial and has met with stern criticism from some major figures in the film industry (director Spike Lee tweeted that ‘American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.’) But Tarantino’s handling of it is obvious, if not particularly sensitive, and there is no ambiguity in his presentation of right and wrong. Indeed, Schultz’s character is something of a rarity in Tarantino’s oeuvre; an altogether decent if conflicted man (his job is after all government sanctioned murder of known violent criminals). He explains early in the film his discomfort with trading for Django, and quickly offers him freedom, money, a horse and eventually a job in exchange for information on men that Django is certainly willing to see harmed. He begins as a cool and quirky killer, but the violence meted out to slaves as punishment or sport around him – and occasionally as a direct result of his work – horrifies, visibly affecting him and forcing him to question his role and his future with Django and the slave owners he must interact with.
If Waltz’ character has been written and performed to stand in stark contrast to the entrancing evil of Inglourious Basterds‘ Hans Landa, DiCaprio and Jackson’s roles are unremittingly and captivatingly evil. DiCaprio continues, perhaps unfairly, to surprise in his acting range; here he plays a vile southern plantation owner of some power, whose southern hospitality and fairness towards Django is constantly undermined by a palpable sense of supremacy over his black slaves. Like Landa, he is eloquent, calm and well spoken, lending a tortuous tension to his slow-burning aggression; his few moments of open anger are startling and genuinely frightening. Jackson transcends even this. Tarantino’s most consistent muse, his performance here ranges from comical to visceral, an ageing slave who quite literally repeats the words of his racist master. There is of course much more to him than puppet though. It is quite astonishing that in what is a relatively small role in a three-hour film, he manages to steal a fair few scenes, and indeed much of Django’s final fury is directed towards a man who he deems to be almost as low as a black slave trader; one who colludes with the oppressors to maintain black servility for his own ends. He is the only character intelligent enough to see through Schultz’ scheme and provides most of the tension in the last hour of the film. This, in time, will be seen as one of his strongest and most challenging roles in a career which has seen him play no small number of iconic characters, not least in other Tarantino-written or -directed movies.
It can be difficult to talk about Tarantino objectively. For some, he will be forever be a menace; a maker of excessively violent, obscene and offensive movies, thieving from other film-makers and genres while enchanting the masses with ‘pulp’ cinema. To others, he is quite simply the coolest auteur of the last twenty years; making genre-defining film after film, with masterful performances, iconic scores and near-perfect scripts, all the while nodding towards other styles and cinemas, and introducing countless cinephiles to the films which have inspired and affected him along the way.
In the case of Django Unchained, its similarity to Inglourious Basterds is hard to miss; at times it is the same film, with different characters. The revenge arc is in place. The camaraderie and sense of combating an unpalatable evil are present. The anarchic shoot-outs are certainly replicated. Tarantino doesn’t make complex cinema; certainly some of the editing work here is unconventional, and his cinematography and scoring could be analysed endlessly for pop culture references and hidden meanings. But Django simply takes a well-known issue, perhaps woefully sidelined by Hollywood, strips it of all but its most extreme tendencies and viewpoints, and populates it with fantastically realised, vivid-if-cartoonish characters.
He’ll make you laugh and gasp. Some scenes will leave you breathless, while others are perhaps overlong and unnecessarily slow. If you know Tarantino well, Django Unchained offers little you haven’t experienced before, though its plot is perhaps stronger and more focussed than anything he has done for some time. Gone are the impossibly cool gangster/crime films of the early 90s, and though each Tarantino event – as each of his films inevitably now becomes – may bring hope of another Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, it is becoming apparent that his interests far exceed those. His story-telling is at its strongest here, saying much with very broad brush-strokes, or perhaps more accurately, bullet wounds. It is a three-hour meandering slavery epic which takes in various genres, styles, locations and character types. If you can still stomach and believe in him now, Django Unchained might just be the best thing he’s made for nearly twenty years.