There is no way anyone with a deep knowledge of film can ignore the influences that have prepared the director for his latest work and there are plenty of sneaky in jokes for them to pick up on. The film would comfortably sit within the history of blaxploitation cinema (with links to films like 1975’s Mandigo amongst others) and, no matter what Tarantino tries to tell us with his talk of “Southerns”, there is little to suggest that Django Unchained would be uncomfortable within the world of Spaghetti Westerns. From the opening credits using the old Columbia logo to the blood-red titles and the whip zooms, the whole thing screams Western. There is an obvious homage to the 1966 film Django thanks to the use of the theme song over the opening titles and a brief cameo by the original Django’s Franco Nero. The final credits of the film utilises music from another influence They Call Me Trinity from 1970. The two films have dramatically different tones with Django being a gruesomely violent melodrama whilst Trinity is a more comic affair where the hero prefers to forgo violence for cheekiness. These two pieces of music sum up the slightly bipolar tone of Tarantino’s latest historical epic. We are treated to an outrageously violent, gruesome Western/blaxploitation hybrid alongside a keen sense of comedy and fun. Although, is this kind of duality the correct setting for a film dealing with such a controversial and risqué topic?
Django Unchainedopens to find our hero, scarred but not yet broken, chained to his fellow slaves before a life changing encounter with German born bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In need of Django’s help to track down three of his targets, the eloquent stranger offers him the chance to be free. Luckily the recently released slave proves to be a natural at this killing for money malarkey and they go into business together. Years in captivity don’t really seem like the usual training ground for a gifted assassin but Django could easily be up there with the best bounty hunters; standing as an equal alongside Rick Deckard, Boba Fett and Dog. The films first act, following Django and Schultz chasing bounties across the snow covered mountains and plains of Tennessee is incredibly enjoyable and, though not all of it is relevant, is full of genuinely funny moments. Their brief encounter with an inept band of the KKK is pure Mel Brooks.
It is during his winter as a professional killer that Schultz discovers his companion is married to fellow slave, Broomhilda (a mishearing of the German Brünnhilde by her ignorant subsequent captors). The pair was separated as part of a cruel punishment after an escape attempt so, with the help of his new friend, Django vows to free his love (Kerry Washington). This takes them into Texas to Candyland, the plantation owned by the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where slaves are forced to fight to the death for their owner’s amusement and punishments include being torn apart by dogs. Not that it were really necessary but the audience are given a sneak peek into the future narrative thanks to Schultz’s retelling of the old German myth of Brünnhilde and Siegfried. It becomes clear that Django must become a real-life Siegfried and slay the dragon that holds his wife captive.
Jamie Foxx gives a great performance as our hero and fits the part perfectly. He has all the needed swagger and cockiness that is necessary for the leading man in a good Western. He takes to the role of the avenger cowboy with ease and he looks every bit as heroic and deadly as any cowboy thanks to his cool leather costume and shades. He has the swagger and the bravado but he has the all-important heart and just cause that even his more inhumane actions seem acceptable. However, he is surrounded by much better characters so he often seems like something of a bit-player in his own story. Foxx plays Django deadpan which often jars with his more laidback cohort. His is a very serious story sure but he often comes across as too serious and straight that he gets lost.
For it is his companion that demands much of our attention for the first half of the film as Christoph Waltz is simply incredible as Schultz. He shares director Quentin Tarantino’s love of long, flowing dialogue and he delivers his beautifully formed speeches with ease and a certain amount of glee. It is here that we see an obvious separation from traditional Westerns, which put the focus on action above words. Whilst Clint Eastwood went through the script to A Fistful of Dollars removing dialogue, you can easily believe Tarantino went through his adding more in. As you would expect there is a shedload of extreme violence in Django but it is with words that the real conflicts are fought. The key showdowns between our two heroes and their villainous counterparts only go to highlight their immeasurable skill to offer up a fantastic speech. It is words that are important here and notably the vast majority of the white Americans portrayed here are dim-witted and inarticulate.
Well, all but the disturbing and seemingly charming Calvin Candie who portrays himself as the perfect Southern Dandy whilst he simultaneously forces his slaves to fight to the death. DiCaprio really lets go as Candie and sinks to the utter depths of depravity and villainy. It’s spectacular and wouldn’t have worked had he been too afraid to go that far. Candie is one of Django’s greatest pleasures. He is the childish dictator controlling his vast empire when he’s not having a tantrum because someone failed to call him Monsieur. He is portrayed perfectly and goes to highlight that DiCaprio is only getting better. Candie has the sugary sweet outer layer of Southern charm and civility to hide his dark and poisonous centre. Whenever he is on screen there is a very real threat of violence. The dinner table scene that takes place at Candyland is all the evidence you need to show just how volatile this Southern dandy is. It’s a fantastic scene made all the more impressive thanks to DiCaprio’s injury during filming.
However, as awful as Candie is he probably isn’t even the main villain of the piece. Alongside him is his faithful servant Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), an awful Uncle Tom figure who limps after Candie like the slave owner’s own evil Igor. Jackson plays this role in a way that you can accept no other actor could pull off. Stephen appears as the world-worn, white-haired and limping old slave but there is little doubt how much power he holds. Stephen knows how to work the system. He has the brains and the anger to keep all of Candyland in check. Interestingly, it is only Stephen who is able to see beyond Schultz’s artistry with words that provides a mask to his true identity. Whilst his counterpart Django prefers to shoot first and ask questions later, Stephen prefers to see people slowly suffer whilst letting other people carry out his dirty work. Samuel L Jackson does a wonderful job and, along with Waltz and DiCaprio, easily takes focus away from our more reserved hero who often falls into the background.
But what a background it is. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who was last seen winning the Oscar for his work on Hugo (a film so beautiful I cried because of the opening shot – FACT!), Django Unchained is an absolutely stunning film. With some amazing shots of picturesque mountains and Southern plains this films is constantly offering a treat for your eyes. These visuals play alongside Tarantino’s use of cinematic clichés like crazy zooms and grainy flashbacks to ensure the end results are incredibly stylish and fresh.
Django Unchainedis Tarantino’s first film since the death of Sally Menke his long-time collaborator which could explain its ever so slightly rough finish. The slave’s road to retribution is a long one with the running time reaching 168 minutes and it doesn’t quite have the overall polish that Inglorious Basterds did. There are a few plot strands and cameo appearances that don’t really go anywhere. (I’m mostly thinking of the mystery behind the woman with the red bandana. What was that about?) Don’t get my wrong, it is fantastic to listen to characters lose themselves in lavish runaway speeches but it does drag everything out a fair bit, especially when it has the tendency to repeat itself. Whilst I did not necessarily find the film lagging a great deal I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been sharper and more refined.
Still I’m not really complaining. I thoroughly enjoyed Django and was kept engrossed in the narrative for the entire 2 hours 45 minute running time. In fact, my only real criticism was the director’s misjudged cameo towards the end of the film. There has been much debate about the use of violence in the film. Of course violence is a major focus for the narrative but it is played out in such an over-the-top way that it simply feels cartoonish. Django’s quest for revenge results in much death and bloodshed but it is so ridiculously unrealistic (it’s the sort of violence that you see in GTA where you shoot a man in the head and it explodes) that it simply adds to the comic effect and the reference to old fashioned Westerns. It’s all relative and in keeping with Tarantino’s main aim. I think it works.
As for the suitability question, I’m not sure. I think there is a sense that the two tones of the film (comic and dramatic) don’t play well with such a big topic. Placing such horrific and realistic acts of violence towards slaves alongside the indulgent and silly deaths of everyone who crosses Django’s path maybe doesn’t sit well. However, Tarantino isn’t attempting to give us a thought-provoking new insight into slavery in America. Instead he has gone back to that time and, in his typical bloody and brash style, has decided to show it what he thinks of it. And perhaps that is exactly how the issue of slavery should be dealt with in Hollywood. What better way to show the absurdity and horror of slavery than placing it in a loud, extremely bloody, self-indulgent and completely ridiculous narrative? We all know that slavery is bad at this point so why allow it to have any more credence by dealing with it in a sophisticated and reserved manner? Let’s just shoot all the bad guys, throw fake blood over everything and blow shit up. This isn’t Taranino’s well thought out argument against slavery. This is him saying ‘slavery sucks so let’s have some fun at its expense’. And fun, dear reader, I did have.