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History gets another dramatic rewrite, Quentin Tarantino-style, in Django Unchained, a jokey, discursive, idiosyncratic and spirited film that does to slave owners what Inglourious Basterds did to Nazis.
Applying the episodic format and visual template of classic and spaghetti Westerns to a revenge saga mostly set in the Deep South just before the Civil War, the film makes a point of pushing the savagery of slavery to the forefront but does so in a way that rather amazingly dovetails with the heightened historical, stylistic and comic sensibilities at play. The anecdotal, odyssey-like structure of this long, talky saga could be considered indulgent, but Tarantino injects the weighty material with so many jocular, startling and unexpected touches that it’s constantly stimulating. A stellar cast and strong action and comedy elements will attract a good-sized audience internationally, though distaste for the subject matter and the irreverent take on a tragic subject might make some prospective viewers hesitate.
Tarantino’s affinity for black culture and interest in the ways blacks and whites relate always have been evident, but they’ve never before been front and center to the extent that they are in Django Unchained. Some might object to the writer-director’s tone, historical liberties, comic japes or other issues, but there can be no question who gets the shaft here: This is a story of justifiable vengeance, pure and simple, and no paleface is spared, even the good German who facilitates a slave’s transformation into a take-no-prisoners hunter of whites who trade in black flesh.
At its core, then, the film entirely shares its raison d’etre with Basterds, which climaxed with a conflagration that fancifully obliterated the Nazi regime. It’s presented, however, as a lengthy journey, one that feels — both in its equivalent running time and luxuriant magnification of arguably incidental matters — quite like Sergio Leone’s great The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. All the same, a lesser-known Italian director of many Westerns, Sergio Corbucci, is Tarantino’s declared touchstone here. Corbucci made the original Django, starring Franco Nero, in 1966, after which there were dozens of unofficial sequels, though none made by Corbucci. (Nero makes a brief appearance here, and in the spirit of European credit lines for famous actors playing small roles in movies, Tarantino amusingly employs the literal translation, “With the friendly participation of Franco Nero.”)
Imprinting at once his ‘60s archivist sympathies via the use of an old Columbia Pictures logo, bright red opening credits backed by a self-consciously cornball Western song and a lead-in title announcing that it’s 1858 “somewhere in Texas,” Tarantino makes anachronistic use of a few spring-loaded zoom shots to introduce Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in flowing salt-and-pepper locks and beard), a German bounty hunter posing as an itinerant dentist, as advertised by a large molar that jiggles on a spring atop his small wagon.
Unlike most men of the Old West, Schultz is an Old World man of many words, rarely using one where four or five will do as he articulately and amusingly explains himself to a succession of skeptical and well-armed ruffians. After considerable verbal ado, he takes down the leaders of a chain gang of slaves, one of whom, Django (Jamie Foxx), can identify the notorious Brittle Brothers, for whom Schultz hopes to collect the considerable reward.
Freeing the slave from his shackles, the impeccably mannered Schultz is polite and businesslike with the bedraggled Django in a way the latter certainly has never experienced, putting him on a horse, offering him $25 per brother if they find them and brazenly marching him into a saloon in the next town they hit to the gaping astonishment of the locals. Expressing the character’s confidence in his intelligence and a huckster’s delight in his skill at the con, Waltz gives a wonderfully large performance that breathes life into the film from the start. There might, in fact, be an element of fair play in Tarantino making Waltz’s German an exemplary fellow this time around after the actor’s villainous Nazi turn in Basterds, for which he won a supporting actor Oscar.
These initial passages serve to communicate how alarming it is in this context for whites to see “a n—– on a horse.” But this is just an appetizer for what white folks will end up encountering at Django’s hands before he’s done serving up his just deserts using the man-hunting skills taught him by Schultz. In a heart-to-heart, Django reveals that his wife was sold away to another master, but of particular interest to Schultz is the news that her name is Broomhilda (or so the reliably idiosyncratic speller Tarantino presents it) and that she speaks German, as she was raised by people from the old country. After Schultz explains the significance of her name, Django resolves to become his wife’s Siegfried, to slay the dragon that is her evil master and rescue his bride. Only Tarantino could come up with such a wild cross-cultural mash, a smorgasbord of ingredients stemming from spaghetti Westerns, German legend, historical slavery, modern rap music, proto-Ku Klux Klan fashion, an assembly of ‘60s and ‘70s character actors and a leading couple meant to be the distant forebears of blaxploitation hero John Shaft and make it not only digestible but actually pretty delicious. Some of it is over-the-top nutty, and a few things — like a mass argument that sounds like a bunch of modern Californians nattering at one another — come off as rather silly. But much of it is inspired or close to it, just as the underlying outrage at the fact that slavery even existed in this country until 148 years ago, is well and truly felt.
Quite naturally, given the historical setting, the N-word gets a heavy workout, by whites and blacks alike. But much more forceful is the cruelty dispensed by the Southern whites, both as punishment and whim; attack dogs are unleashed on one man, Mandingo fighters (in an homage to the unforgettable 1975 Mandingo) battle to the death in a beautifully appointed drawing room for the wealthy’s amusement, a woman is locked naked in a metal “hot box,” genital mutilation is arranged for a man and much more. For all the film’s genre hopping and playful spirit, this dead-serious foundation is never far from sight. As Sonny Chiba said in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, “Revenge is never a straight line.” And so it is here, as the unlikely pair of Schultz and Django rack up quite a fortune in bounties to finance their scheme to buy back Broomhilda from her owner, Southern scion Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a smooth-talking, elegant young gentleman who welcomes Schultz to his vast plantation, Candyland, even if he can scarcely tolerate the presence of his black partner — who by now has traded in his ludicrous bright blue Little Lord Fauntleroy suit for the leather, hat and sunglasses of a fancy-pants cowboy.
Django seethes in silence as the whites discuss business and pleasure over a long dinner. In the process, the film’s focus shifts to Candie, whom DiCaprio plays with more relish than he’s brought to a part in some time, and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), his old house slave whose combination of obsequiousness and diabolical shrewdness makes him a vivid character. Jackson’s appearance at first provokes a double-take — he’s somewhat stooped, filled out in the jowl and bald save for tufts of white hair on top and on the sides — but the Tarantino regular astutely judges just how far to push the jivey dialogue that offsets the subservient nature of the role. When Jackson is onscreen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.
The film’s greatest problem is that, especially in the second half, the Django character gets a bit lost in the shuffle; he doesn’t pop from the screen the way Schultz, Candie and Stephen do. Django is all about being resolute and determined, but more detail could have filled out the character’s transformation from downtrodden slave to steely master gunfighter. Schultz teaches him about Siegfried and firearms, but the long-journey format could have nicely accommodated a fuller, more gradual account of the expansion of Django’s mind and horizons; as it is, he lurches from impotent nonperson to cocky dude too abruptly. It’s true that cowboy and genre characters needn’t be deep, but because the other characters get most of the good lines, Django could have used something they don’t have: an extra dimension. Foxx doesn’t project the sort of charisma that the lucky few have to rivet audience attention even when they’re doing nothing, so when he’s not the center of attention, he seems withdrawn and not that interesting.
As he’s done before, Tarantino has peppered the huge cast with actors whose heydays date back as far as the ’60s; mostly they play cretinous types and show up just long enough to be recognized before getting killed. Among them are Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, James Remar, Dennis Christopher, James Russo, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, M.C. Gainey, Robert Carradine, Ted Neeley, Tom Savini and Michael Parks; Tarantino himself also plays one of these lowlifes. Don Johnson clearly relishes his scenes as a Tennessee plantation Big Daddy whose efforts to launch an early KKK-like raiding party prove inept, while Jonah Hill looks predictably out of place during his few seconds of screen time.
Veteran production designer J. Michael Riva died during filming, but his fine hand particularly shows in the detailed interiors for Candyland and a New Orleans brothel. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is elegant and rugged as needed. Costume designer Sharen Davis has opportunities for some fun both with Django’s developing wardrobe and Schultz’s finery, which includes a suit and cape that prefigures that of Sherlock Holmes. This is the director’s first film without his invaluable editor, the late Sally Menke, but Fred Raskin, an assistant editor on the Kill Bill films, has filled in capably.
As always with Tarantino, the soundtrack is a wildly eclectic thing. Spaghetti Western scoring master Ennio Morricone is represented by eight tracks, some recycled and one original song, while there’s also rap and more contemporary sounds from the likes of James Brown and 2Pac — together in “Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” — and Rick Ross, as well as “Django (Main Theme)” by Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Rocky Roberts.
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