Slave owners are like nazis: It’s good to watch them die. That bloody sentiment could be the driving theme of Quentin Tarantino’s last two films. Revenge is a most base emotion, and the revenge story resonates at that base level the way few others can. That revenge begets revenge, and violence violence, is not ignored in Tarantino’s world, but its satiation is an operatic affair. Django Unchained is a revenge film on a much grander scale than the typical western. Django is a black man and former slave. His adversary is no single criminal but a centuries old institution. No matter how brutal, there is coarse justification for his revenge.
For the first time, Tarantino’s multiple talents have coalesced into a singular vision. Loaded with script, ensemble, music, and romantic vistas, the movie is a shotgun blast. Bombastic as the wielder might be, as Karen Kim says, “[he’s] a fucking surgeon with this shotgun.”
I am not an ardent Tarantino fan. I consider Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs to be great genre films, Jackie Brown listless, Kill Bill overlong and overwrought and Death Proof fun. I was greatly disappointed by Inglorious Basterds, two movies locked together yet alive in only a handful of scenes. But who can deny that Tarantino is one of the greats? He possesses a reservoir of film knowledge and a genuine energy unmatched by his contemporaries. His brand of filmmaking, and the clear influence of spaghetti westerns* in all his works, had me anxiously awaiting the day that he turned his talents to a full on western. He has. And it is good.
Django is really a two-part story. The first introduces us to Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave, one-time runaway, being marched across Texas in early winter. He is bought by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, one-time dentist, who offers him his freedom if he can identify for him three wanted criminals, the Brittle Brothers. Together Django and Schultz take bounties until Django is free and ready to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz, who considers Django as much a friend as partner, offers to help in the rescue. The story of Brynhildr is a familiar German fairytale, and the Doctor tells Django he is honor bound to join him.
The truth of his involvement is much more sentimental than that, evinced in a beautifully nuanced performance by Christoph Waltz. Waltz formerly played the Sicherheitsdienst Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Basterds, a role he earned as much for his fluency in three languages as his charisma. In Django, Dr. Schultz is as moral as Hans Landa was slimy. Cynicism abounds in Western films, and for a hired killer the characterization is rote. It is surprising then, almost shocking, that Schultz is a Tarantino creation, a director who delights in black humor and tongue-in-cheek, for the doctor betrays a kindness and dignity seldom portrayed so unabashedly.
The film does slow down in its second half when they reach Candieland, run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Broomhilda has been sold to Candie and Django and Schultz parlay their way into the plantation to purchase her.
DiCaprio is good, but my impression is that Tarantino wanted to cast an actor in the role of Calvin Candie in the same way that Leone cast stereotypical good guy Henry Fonda as his villain in Once Upon a Time in the West. DiCaprio has taken rough roles in the past but Candie could have been played with an arch petulance to make him a villain for the decade. Instead, like Fonda, his good looks mask a rotted heart, but unlike Fonda, he never quite sells the threat beneath.
Django is a long film, but the length is felt only at the end. Its last fifteen minutes stretch out a finale anticipated but lacking the gravitas of what came before. This is due to the change in Jamie Foxx’s character.
“Getting into character” is a common device in Tarantino’s work. The words are spoken by Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction. This device is used commonly and appropriately by his characters, usually men in the business of death and intimidation. It is Dr. Schultz that teaches Django about playing a character to get a bounty, and it is the character of a One-Eyed Joe or black slaver that Django puts on to infiltrate Candie’s Mandingo fighting ring. It is a role that fills him with loathing.
How Django the Mandingo Wrangler and Django the Former Slave merge by the story’s end is an intriguing transformation, but this entanglement robs the film of its earlier humanity. Django’s finale is rife with all the righteous mayhem as can be expected from a Tarantino film, but Django as a grinning cold-blooded killer, a stereotypical action star, is much less compelling than the man we first meet. It is satisfying to see him wreak his vengeance, but it is disconcerting to not know who Jamie Foxx is playing, or if the character has been subsumed by the actor.
Of course the petty act that brings him to the movie’s bloody finale, its surprising perpetrator, the delicate matter of etiquette that it denies, and the issue of climax this kind of movie requires, could all be used to construct another essay entirely. To say any more would spoil.
When the credits roll, the anticipation for Tarantino’s own western has been well sated, as Django Unchained pounds out a rhythm that is undeniably fun. There is violence, and frankly ludicrous squibs bursting for every rifle pop and pistol crack, and a well-deserved R rating for both this and its profane language. Yet few have the weaver’s skill at punchy writing that threads its way throughout the onslaught. All of Tarantino’s films give the audience a blood-soaked brouhaha but not since Pulp Fiction has Tarantino sustained this manic balancing act. Death is a serious business, post- and pre-Civil War, but dealing it out to rotten sons of bitches is a visceral delight the film indulges. In the real world, that kind of impulse is sadistic. In Tarantino’s world, it’s poetry.
Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
The Weinstein Company
*Critics on NPR called this film a “spaghetti western,” which irks me the same way that critics rush to congratulate a “graphic novel” by comparing it to Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns (one is a well-plotted pastiche and the other is a fun but fascist nightmare). Tarantino is undoubtedly influenced by the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, but this is an American filmmaker making an American Western. And since Hollywood long ago abandoned the clean sequined cowboy version of the Old West in favor of the grittier eurowesterns, the term really has no more relevance.
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