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Django Unchained

Django Unchained

He looks like he's going to paint a portrait with the gun.
A portrait of... REVENGE!!!!

dir: Quentin Tarantino

So, saviour of humanity that he is, using the magic of cinema to correct or at least exact retribution for the crimes of the past, Tarantino does for the slaves in Django Unchained what he did for the Jews in Inglourious Basterds: he gets historical revisionist revenge, REVENGE!

I don’t know how much moral or philosophical thinking goes into what he does, but Tarantino doesn’t really strike me as a director who has an agenda beyond making films that look like and reference other films. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve enjoyed so many of his films (to wildly different degrees) that to criticise Tarantino for what he doesn’t do (come up with entirely and wholly new themes, aesthetics and plots/stories) ignores what he does do (makes entertaining and sometimes hellishly funny films).

With Django Unchained it’s an even thornier proposition. Sure, it’s entertaining, but I can see how the criticism of trivialising the legacy of slavery in the US is a theoretically valid one. It raises the hackles of the kinds of hackle-ready outrage merchants who thought getting a wholly symbolic and fantastical revenge on Hitler and his high ranking scumbags trivialised the Holocaust in his earlier film.

Both sets of complainants (they’re very different groups with similar modus operandi) would be wrong, but I can respect where they’re coming from. Sure, they’re entitled to their shitty opinions, just like I am, and just like Tarantino is, and they deserve to be heard, and then supported, dismissed or ridiculed as the case may be.

What that claim ignores in this instance is the fact that the mechanics, the infrastructure of slavery, and its abject inhuman cruelty are front and centre in the story. The reason I think a fair few commentators of the conservative variety Stateside have criticised the flick is not for its incredibly over the top violence, or just for the incredibly frequent use of the word “nigger”, but because they don’t like it when mass audiences are reminded of just what building their great nation entailed.

Oh, it was a brutal time in American history. Brutal and incredibly sadistic, and the flick never shies away from depicting, in exaggerated forms, just how horrible and pervasive this institutionalised misery was across the great nation before the Great Emancipator came along and freed everyone and made everything better for ever more.

But, honestly, are you going to trust Spielberg to show you in Lincoln what it was really like before slavery was abolished, and the complicity of all, citizens and chattels alike, in maintaining that system, or are you going to trust Quentin Tarantino to give you an ugly trawl through American history before showering the audience in blood?

One might be historically more accurate, but, I tell you, Django has raw power going for it, and no pretensions to prestige, no matter how good it looks.

The Django of the title is played by Jaime Foxx, and he is a one in ten thousand slave. He has an absolute and, at first, quiet determination to be reunited with the woman he loves, being Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a fellow slave whom he married, with whom the wedding bond shared is that of the same facial branding and lash scars upon their backs.

They have been separated, and a combination of luck and mutual self-interest causes his path to cross with that of the charming and avuncular King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), with whom the long journey towards rescuing his wife can begin.

Dr Schultz is a dentist, and drives across the land in an absurd carriage with a giant tooth on a spring above it. He abhors slavery, and buys Django’s freedom, seeing in him the qualities he needs in a working companion. The dentistry doesn’t appear to be Schultz’s main source of income, as he is in truth a hunter of bounties instead.

Sure, sure, all those pretty Wanted posters say Dead or Alive, but who really wants to lug around a bunch of living prisoners, when it’s so much easier to just shoot them as soon as you can. Django’s a natural, but he is uneasy about this profession. He has witnessed too much misery in his life, and doesn’t really want to be the one bringing more misery into the world.
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Still, a job’s a job, and if you’re going to do it at all, you’ve got to do it right. He’s a natural at killing white folk, and he and Schultz train in the snow, shooting precisely at snowmen’s various bits to show off their level of skill. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re shooting at lambently white snowmen for training.

Wherever they go, they meet with incredulity. Few can believe that Django is a free man, though he is, legally. It’s on a piece of paper, so it must be true. Fewer white folks further have ever seen a free man of the previously African persuasion riding a horse and wearing a gun at his hip, especially in the company of a white man.

It blows their minds, it smashes their worlds, and, at least in a bunch of instances, the blowing of minds or worlds occurs literally because of the bullets from Django’s guns passing through them at a highly accelerated rate. Schultz and Django become, for lack of a better term, friends, even with Django’s natural wariness and hesitation.

It’s pulled off in such a casual way, and Christoph Waltz pulls it off in such an effortless manner, which is funny when you think about it. In Inglourious Basterds as Colonel Landa, he played his formidable role with charm and urbanity, but there was always a chilling menace to everything he did and every honeyed word that dripped from his mouth. He even found a way to make the words “Now that’s a bingo” sound funny and menacing.

In Django Unchained, because Django is emotionally shut down (with Foxx giving a decent, understated performance), and is very ‘internal’, not given to outbursts of emotion or talk (though plenty of outbursts of lead), it’s down to Schultz to deliver whole bunches of exposition and witty repartee to keep us entertained.

Also, he possesses some truly phenomenal facial hair, with a beard and moustache combo that Otto Von Bismarck himself would have burned with envy over.
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As they travel and travail all over the South, they get involved in all sorts of bloody adventures, and also incur the racial ire of even a proto-KKK outfit of Regulators, who pursue them despite the complete non-user-friendliness of their chosen pillow-case apparel.

Sure, it’s not the delirious KKK dance scene in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it’s amusing enough.

The bounty partner friends are journeying towards their holy grail, and it happens to be at a place called Candyland, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), but run by probably the meanest Uncle Tom race traitor in the history of film, being Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

It’s not really that sensible to me, but our chaps have to indulge in an elaborate charade in order to get the attention and the invitation of Candie to his ancestral home, which involves pretending to be slave trader types themselves, with Django as an alleged expert in buying quality slaves. All this is because Schultz is convinced just offering money for Hildy, as they call her for short, won’t get them anywhere.

Of all the people that dislike Django throughout the film, the one that hates him the most, flat out hates his fucking guts, is Stephen, who puts on a good show of being a comical Uncle Remus-type, which hides his pure malevolence. The saturnine Candie, as well, fancies himself a French aristocrat-type, with pretensions towards being a scientist of sorts, but, really, deep down, he is a vicious sadist at heart, as anyone would be who lives like he does, profiting from the misery of people he does not consider human. Shame on him and all those who accepted the ugly status quo, you naughty fuckers.

This is a Quentin Tarantino movie. You expect convoluted and expansive dialogue, you expect various scenes to have abundant, slow-building tension, strange humour, explosive and shocking outbursts of violence, and an outcome as bloody as a slaughterhouse floor. Of course we get most of that (there aren’t the major digressions and conversations of his earlier flicks, at least not as abundantly), with a side order of racial conflict and the bloodiest revenge imaginable.

I thought it was hellishly entertaining, and bizarre, but I didn’t really embrace it in the same spirit as some of his earlier films. The death of his editor Sally Menke a couple of years ago may have played a part. She was particularly adept at crafting tension in the scenes she edited, making them feel like exquisite torture, and it didn’t feel as completely ‘right’ here, especially the climatic handshake between Schultz and Candie (though the outcome was well done). Django himself is an entertaining enough character, and righteous in his path, but he isn’t the larger-than-life titan that such a flick deserves. Foxx gave what I would call a ‘realistic’ performance in an outlandish and cartoonish exploitation flick, and I’m not sure that it was the most appropriate performance that such a travesty required.

Towards the end there’s also a bizarre interlude with some Australians. That’s not a typo, I don’t mean Austrians. Tarantino himself plays one of the Australian slave drivers, which is bizarre enough in itself, but I found the presence of John Jarratt, of Better Homes and Gardens and Wolf Creek fame, even more distracting. They even have Jaime Foxx say ‘mate’ with an Aussie accent after he interacts with them for a while.

Fucking bizarre, but hey, that’s what the cinema-going public wants, and that’s what they’re going to get. They crave that Aussie action, don’t they? The world round? Can’t get enough of it.

I guess I liked it, but, man, did it really have to be nearly three hours long? That’s a hell of a long time to be watching any film, let alone a Tarantino flick. I wouldn’t have minded if I’d been watching it at home on Blu-Ray, for obvious pause button reasons, but the length got to me after a while, not to mention the width.

Yes, the film uses the word “nigger” hundreds of times. So it should. It’s an ugly word, used in an ugly manner by all sorts of people in all sorts of different ways, all of them meant to demean and degrade the people the term is aimed at in the story. It’s a perpetual reminder of just how ugly the mentality was of the people who let the abomination of slavery continue for nearly a hundred years after they created their great nation through their Declaration of Independence and their Constitution, which guaranteed the rights and freedoms of all Americans except, you know, the ones it was profitable to keep as property. It should always be an affront to the ear and our comfort, and this does nothing to lessen that impact.

It’s interesting enough, and amusing enough, with Christoph Waltz being the real star (how he got a Best Supporting Actor nomination when he has almost as much screentime as Foxx makes no sense to me), with absurdly good performances from DiCaprio and Jackson as well. But I don’t think it’s going to be starting any uprisings, I’m sad to say.

7 times Tarantino’s accent is as good as Tarantino’s acting out of 10

“How do you like the bounty-hunting business?”
- “Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?” – Django Unchained