Taking its name (and theme tune by Rocky Roberts and Luis Bacalov) from Sergio Corbucci’s influential 1966 spaghetti western Django, Tarantino’s new film sees this most reflexive of American auteurs turn his hand to the Western.
Django (Foxx) is a slave freed from leg irons by Dr King Schultz (Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz is seeking some outlaws but has no idea what they look like, but has heard of a slave who could identify the men. Which leads him to track down the slave traders who recently bought the unfortunate Django. Django has been separated from his wife after they tried to flee a plantation, and Schultz makes him a deal, partner with him in the bounty hunting business and the romantic German will help him track down his wife once spring comes and the snows thaw. Of course, it soon emerges that out of irons Django is a natural with a different type of metal, lead.
As the reference to the Corbucci’s film indicates the primary source of cinematic inspiration for Django Unchained is not the classic westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawkes or even the revisionism of Sam Peckinpah, it is the European emulations and mutations of this most American of genres. Italian westerns had a complex relationship to American genre, and to the history and symbolism of America itself. While American westerns up to the 1960s could still celebrate the notion of manifest destiny with a straight face the more cynical and left leaning Italian writers and directors brought eyes altogether more jaundiced to the format. The West portrayed in the spaghetti westerns was violent, unjust and founded on motivations of greed and revenge. Heroes became gave way to anti-heroes.
Tarantino’s film is everything we have come to expect from him. It is sprawling, episodic and somewhat baggy in its story and structure. This is perfectly in keeping with the western genre and in fact the plot is uncharacteristically linear for Tarantino, sticking to one story and one central character and proceeding from A to B (with a few flashbacks to fill in the backstory). There is plenty of talk and humour (often carrying a whiff of the gallows) and the film dishes out short, sharp shocks of violence. But there is something here that Tarantino has arguably not had in one of his films since 1997’s Jackie Brown: soul. Just as many of the European westerns Tarantino references tried to skewer American history, Tarantino has in his sights a dirty great elephant squatting in the room. That would be the shame of slavery. The film very quickly and brutally dispenses with the traditional romanticised Johnny Reb western bullshit that glorifies the south, something that even featured in that most libertarian of 70s westerns, Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Tarantino holds the glory of the west and the spread of white culture at the expense of other races in contempt. The world of Django Unchained is one of plantations, slave owners, idiot clansmen, oppression and brutality. This is a Tarantino film to be sure, but one that is about something.
However, don’t get the wrong idea; this isn’t Lincoln, this is an exploitation movie through and through. Tarantino paints the screen red with sudden outburst of cartoonish violence. The tone is ironic and comedic (the film was nominated in the drama section of the Golden Globes, despite being funnier than all of the films in the musical or comedy category). But at unexpected and shocking moments the film will drop the jocularity and ironic distance for sudden moments of horrible racism and violence of a less Tex Avery nature. Two sequences in particular stood out for me as genuinely horrible, a brutal "Mandingo" fight in which two slaves are forced to fight to the death like dogs for the amusement of their white "masters", and the terrible fate of a runaway slave later in the film. Depressingly, Tarantino has again been dragged into the ever recurring debate about screen violence inspiring real violence in the wake of recent tragedies. But in these scenes he shows again how deft a director he is in his use of suggestion. It’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see.
Performances and casting approach perfection in this picture. The leads are terrific – Foxx is stoic and simmers with righteous rage, while Waltz is superb as a cultured killer of warmth and humanity. The relationship of Django and Schultz make this also a great buddy film. In the film’s second half the pair track Django’s wife (Washington) to the plantation of Calvin Candie, a vile slave owner played with disturbing relish by DiCaprio. DiCaprio is despicable, but perhaps the most evil character in the film is his black butler Stephen, played by Jackson in truly intimidating form. Stephen is the ultimate Uncle Tom, almost more devoted to the principles of slavery than Candie is. It is a chilling performance.
Technically the film looks great as shot by veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson. Tarantino die hards will feel a pang of pain that this is the first of his films not to be edited by the late Sally Menke, but Fred Raskin (who was an assistant editor on Kill Bill) does a great job. The soundtrack is another romp through the director’s record collection and mixes scores from spaghetti westerns, soul music, country and hip hop. Some have complained about this, but it is no more anachronistic that the music used by Corbucci or Leone on their westerns, and it works goddamit.
This is a blazing, full bore return to form from Tarantino. The director has, in my opinion, drifted somewhat since Kill Bill: Part 1. I didn’t much care for Kill Bill: Part 2, disliked slasher/car chase hybrid Death Proof immensely, and whilst Inglourious Basterds contains some of the best work Tarantino has ever done, it was also undisciplined and subject to frequent longueurs. Time and further viewings are needed to form a full opinion, but my gut feeling is that Django Unchained may be as good as Pulp Fiction. Whatever, this savage, brutal, hilarious film is almost indecently entertaining.
EXTRAS ★★ For such a magnificent film, the bonus material is rather sparse: the featurette Reimagining The Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained (13:51); the featurette The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis (12:07); the featurette Remembering J Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained (12:54); the Tarantino XX Blu-ray Collection Promo (1:25), which is a trailer for a 10-disc box set; and the Django Unchained Soundtrack Promo (00:22), which is an ad for the soundtrack. No audio commentary, no deleted scenes. Pretty poor, really.