It’s difficult to compare the retro-inspired Quentin Tarantino to any standard but the one he sets for himself with his own filmography. His latest film, Django Unchained, stands up well as a modern mash up of the Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation cinema. It mines the past of cinema history while bringing something new to the mix through Tarantino’s indulgence in meandering but purposeful and always entertaining dialogue. That said, already the inclination arises to consider this film against the many iconic movies the director has produced in his 20-year career. This latest entry probably falls most into the quality of Kill Bill for its sheer indulgence of length and its theme of vengeance. There lies both its faults and merits.
It’s a well-constructed, if extra-long, film building up toward an over-indulgent climax with a push-pull tension between humor and violence. Tarantino’s retro winks begin immediately with a vintage Columbia Pictures logo leader, and then the title track from the original Django film (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) that influenced the film only in name and style. As usual, Tarantino’s soundtrack throughout is well-inspired when it sticks to the era influences of the spaghetti western (Ennio Morricone appears more than once) and the 70s era that film genre flourished in (a sly choice in Jim Croce’s tune “I Got a Name”). When it diverts to modern hip-hop it feels like a stretch, however, and disturbs the film’s vintage quality, even if a track samples James Brown.
During the romantic, dreamy swing of guitars and strings and the soaring cool vocals of the Roberto Fia-sung title track, a chain gang of slaves cross hostile lands of blazing sun and drizzling snow in meager clothing. The group shuffles behind a pair of slave traders on horses. It’s almost a sick sort of dance sequence, and brilliantly establishes Tarantino’s notion to exploit the horrific elements of the end of the slave-era in the United States. The irony of this delightful song, which oozes 1960s-kitsch, comes across in the juxtaposition of the suffering of these men.
The film follows a freed slave, the titular Django (Jamie Foxx), and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) the bounty hunter who emancipates him and takes him under his wing. The action unfolds in 1858 (“two years before the Civil War,” as an intertitle in the film points out) as the pair travels from Texas to Mississippi. Their relationship begins as something practical and blossoms into something far more idealistic. Django wants to find his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) and Schultz cannot help but fall enraptured by the parallels to the ancient German myth from the Nibelung Saga in Django’s quest (Broomhilde was the name of a princess in the tale in need of rescue from a dragon).
As demonstrated by the film’s own comparison to a myth dating back to Norse lore, the hero venturing to rescue the damsel is nothing new. But for the slavery-hating German character of Schultz, the opportunity to watch the definitive fairy tale of his beloved nation acted out by black slaves, one of which actually learned German during her servitude, seems irresistible. His drive to help Django just to experience the myth by proxy comes from a far more romantic place than even Django’s drive. Django wants his wife back, Schultz helps him for the sake of myth! Schultz is the film’s poetry and soul and when he falls out of the story, the film seems to sag as far as stakes go. Tarantino appearing in a cameo with a bad Australian accent adds an exclamation point to just how weak and uninvestable the rest of the film is, as it charges toward a literally explosive finale.
Of course, as the title reveals, this is not a film about the good Dr. King. However, Waltz steals the show, delighting in every inflection of the Tarantino script. His erudite delivery of Tarantino’s mannered language in his crisp German accent makes him appear as not only the smartest of the bunch but the most noble. It’s a wonderful turn away from Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as the equally mannered though greedy, “Jew-hunting” Nazi in Tarantino’s amazing prior film Inglourious Basterds. The fundamental difference between Schultz and everyone else in Django Unchained is how far he goes to act on principle, always staying true to his romantic reasoning while acting like a psychopath— a lethal bounty hunter with a heart of gold. It’s a brilliant character and Waltz embraces his role, dialogue and all, with effortless panache.
The irony in watching this character chew up the scenery is that he upstages the title character who Foxx can only seem to play as cool and distant … and sometimes befuddled. Often, Django seems in over his head during his adventures with his mentor. Whether it’s making the most of his freedom to pick his own wardrobe or fighting for respect from other men as a freed man. It would have been nice to have a more fleshed out character in Django, but this was an oppressed man in oppressive times. That he must lay waste to everything in sight to be a hero becomes a bit of a cop-out, for the battle for true freedom looms as a long road that to this day has not reached its endpoint.
Problems with the story aside, Django Unchained feels like a comprehensive, albeit cartoonish, experience of the end of the slave-years in American history. Tarantino stays true to an era when a black man was never even allowed to ride horseback. Helpless violence is dealt unto black slaves with cruelty, from their position in shackles to whippings to even the abuse of the N-word, which has become verboten in today’s post-PC-age, but has long made liberal appearances in Tarantino movies. Never mind that people of Tarantino’s age grew up in the pre-PC age where elementary school teachers threw about the word during history lessons on the Underground Railroad. It was a part of history, and history’s lessons become useless if we forget them. Today, watching a film of violence populated by characters who hate the Other with such entitlement magnifies the potency of the word, and its violence is made apparent throughout this film.
Some of the most unapologetic abusers of the word in Django Unchained include the plantation owner Big Daddy (a suave, scene-stealing Don Johnson), Mandingo fighting connoisseur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing high-strung and short-fused) and his bitter but sly (and there’s not soft-shoeing around this one) “house nigger” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). But the crux of the film seems to be that those who do not know how to respect their fellow man, no matter the color of their skin, will ultimately get their comeuppance.
With Django Unchained Tarantino knows how to stay true to the era as well as the weight of its social inequalities on a character like Django, despite the film’s often over-the-top tone. The Spaghetti western and, even more so, Blaxploitation, were powerful bursts of sex and violence in an era when cinema rebelled against the oppressive rules of self-censoring imposed by the Hays Code. Tarantino is well known to delight in violence inspired by early 1970s cinema, but also has a strong ear for characters and even their subtleties, or— better put— details. It’s interesting to watch Tarantino work with both humor and horror to address things like the class system among not only slaves and their owners, but the levels of class within slavery, which brilliantly comes to light when Django and Schultz get to know Mr. Candie and his plantation. Despite the inevitable blood bath by the vengeful Django, the film has more than violence at its heart.
Django Unchained runs 165 min. and is Rated R for many good reasons. It opens Tuesday, Dec. 25, in most theaters. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. A few indie cinemas in the Miami area are also getting in on the action. It will make a first-run appearance at the Tower Theater in Miami with Spanish subtitles. Later that week, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will host screenings of the digitally-restored original Django, starting Friday, Dec. 28. Here’s the trailer for that film:
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)