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Non-Review Review: Django Unchained

“They’ll call you the quickest gun in the South,” bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz remarks to the freed slave Django Freeman. The cliché would suggest that he meant to say “West”, but Django Unchained has its mind firmly on the Southern United States. Producing the film, writer-director Quentin Tarantino argued that he wanted to produce a “Southern” rather than a “Western”, and he has done an admirable job. However, what’s really remarkable about Django Unchained is the way that it balances Tarantino’s trademark grindhouse aesthetic with considerable mature nuance. Django Unchained is the story about two bounty hunters tracking down wanted men dead or alive, but it that doesn’t mean that it is afraid to tackle more substantive and challenging aspects of American history.

If you’d asked me whether I thought that Tarantino could produce a powerful and insightful exploration of slavery in the Deep South before I saw Inglourious Basterds, I would have hesitated before answering. Django Unchained is smart, sophisticated and thoughtful, but never pretentious, never pandering, never dull. In a rather unlikely way, it is the most mature film Tarantino has ever produced.

An ice cold killer...

An ice cold killer…

Mature is, of course, a relative word when it comes to Tarantino. This isn’t a slow-moving feel-good historical drama that attempts to depict a life-affirming examination of a brutal period of American history that pop culture dances delicately around. There are times when Django Unchained seems positively juvenile. One of the more memorable sequences in the film features an encounter with the KKK that seems to have been adapted from some lost version of Blazing Saddles, as a gang of stupid racist thugs discover they can hardly see out of those intimidating white sacks.

While various members attempt to improvise just over the hill from their target, other members throw hissy fits and whine about it, while some try to mitigate. It’s a ridiculous, cartoonish scene – but it works remarkably well in context. It’s silly, and it’s funny – and that somehow elevates the rest of the film in a way that’s difficult to articulate. American cinema has traditionally been reluctant to probe too deeply into this side of the “Old West”, and – when it does – it generally does with a po-faced sincerity and earnestness that belies the sense that nobody really knows quite what to say.

Raising the bar?

Raising the bar?

So we get moves about white people trying to end slavery (like Lincoln, Amistad and Amazing Grace) that seem to try to put a relatively positive spin on things. Well,” they seem to say, “it ended, didn’t it?” Given the fact that period stories tend to require big budgets, the conservatism of the studio system makes it very difficult to produce a movie about the period that isn’t going to try to harness that brutality and that horror into something approaching an optimistic story, all offered to the audience with an incredible self-seriousness.

As such, the relatively juvenile approach of Tarantino offers a refreshing alternative. His tale of slavery and oppression isn’t a story about how things got better. It’s a story about just how terrible things were, and about how they were so readily accepted by absolutely everybody. Samuel L. Jackson turns in his best performance in years playing the house slave Stephen. At one point, he considers the rather uninventive tortures that a bunch of white men are considering enforcing on a particularly troublesome slave.

Hammer don't hurt...

Hammer don’t hurt…

“Most of them involve messin’ with your private parts,” he concedes, clearly unimpressed with a clear lack of imagination on the part of his masters. He considers a variety of truly horrific punishments, only to suggest that none of them are really that suitable for the present occasion. “We do sh!t like that all the time,” he muses. The sight of two black men murdering one another for the entertainment of their host is so banal an experience to Calvin Candie that feels comfortable discussing business during it.

When Candie returns home looking for a particular slave, Stephen assures him, “She’s in the sweatbox.” There’s something incredibly callously casual about the violence inflicted upon the slaves, and something that is far more unnerving and effective than sensationalising the brutality that they are subjected to. Calvin and Stephen are truly horrible and detestable people, as are the rest of the white people inhabiting Candie’s estate, but the unpleasantness stems more from the casualness of their racism than from any of the more outrageous acts of violence.

Not so even Stephen...

Not so even Stephen…

Keen to show off one of his slaves, Candie casually strips her off in the middle of dinner. The only objection comes from his sister. “Calvin!” she protests. “I just got her all dressed up.” She talks about the slaves as if they were nothing more than fancy dolls, and Candie feels the same way. His idea of “Southern hospitality” means having slaves available to meet the every need of his guests, considering them as little more than extensions of his house – fancy fixtures to be produced to impress his guests. At one point, when one is unavailable to him, he laments, “What’s the use in having a slave who speak German if she’s not available when we have a German guest?” He whines as if his widescreen television broke before the big match went on.

Django Unchained doesn’t skimp on the violence that these characters experienced, but it also realises that there was something more fundamentally rotten here, much like Candie’s decaying teeth. The film observes that slavery wasn’t just oppression through sheer physical force, but something deeper, and more institutional and more finely engrained in the culture of the South, and of America. The lead character who is most outraged by the conduct of Candie is not the freed slave Django, but the white dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. Schultz.

A man with many Vices...

A man with many Vices…

During one of Candie’s early demonstrations of violence, Schultz offers to pay top dollar to save the slave from his master’s violence, a moment of obvious weakness that Django attempts to cover up. When Django explains that his wife Brynhildr (pronounced “Broomhilda” by the American characters) has most likely been taken as a “comfort woman”, Schultz is so innocent he catches himself actually asking, “What is a comfort wo-?”

The film explicitly suggests that Schultz’s unease with this racial violence is a result of his European roots. When Candie asks about Schultz’s obvious unease at one act of brutality, Django explains, “He just isn’t used to seeing a man torn apart by dogs.” When Candie follows up by asking how Django is clearly made of sterner stuff, the freed slave retorts, “I’m used to Americans.” Tarantino makes some incisive commentary on the American character by using perhaps the most romantic of American historic genres (the Western) to examine one of the most uncomfortable aspects of American history (slavery).

Pipe down!

Pipe down!

In fact, Tarantino explicitly links the two. Trying to explain his career as a bounty hunter to Django, Schultz explains, “Much like slavers trade in lives, I trade in corpses.” Later on, he describes bounty hunting as “the peddling of dead flesh.” It’s a brave and daring move on Tarantino’s part to compare one of the great American myths to a disturbing and uncomfortable reality, and I think it reflects the director’s maturity as a filmmaker.

There’s nothing quite as subversive as his cinema massacre at the climax of Inglourious Basterds, but there’s still a sense that Tarantino is playing around with his beloved genre tropes to offer a hint of criticism. Inglourious Basterds explored the brutal cycle of vengeance with a Jew burning a bunch of Nazis in a furnace, and Django Unchained explores and picks apart the romantic fantasy surrounding the alleged heroism of the brutal violence that we have come to expect from classic Western stories.

Walk the line...

Walk the line…

Early on, Schultz is inspired to tell Django the story of the mythical Brynhildr. It’s an obvious attempt to construct a parallel between the great American “frontier” myth and the more magical stories from European history. Naturally, Django’s attempts to rescue his wife mirror the quest by Siegfried to reunite with his own lover. “He walked through the fire, because she was worth it,” Schultz explains, perhaps the moment he decides to help Django rescue his wife. Tarantino shrewdly decides not to labour the point, which is a smart move.

The story features any number of classic Western tropes. Django is a natural gunfighter, despite the fact that he never held a gun before. There are shootouts, and horses, and standoffs. And yet, while never quite as brutal as Inglourious Basterds in deconstructing the genre, Django Unchained does subvert some of our expectations. There is, almost against all expectations, a moment in the film where it seems all our characters could go home relatively happy. That, of itself, is strangely disconcerting, given how we’ve been trained to expect Westerns to play out, but then Tarantino twists the knife.

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

Almost inevitably, those old Western tropes about honour and gunfighting kick in… the result is far more bloody and violent (and pointless) than it needs to be. Django Unchained offers us all that we expect from a Western, only to make us wonder if those attributes are really that endearing. Much like the ending of Inglourious Basterds makes us question if we really wanted “the face of Jewish vengeance”, the climax of Django Unchained inquires as to whether all these archetypal Western qualities are actually virtues.

Tarantino is in top form. Django Unchained is beautifully composed and structured. It runs just under three hours, but it flies by. part of that is Tarantino’s skill at structure, and his unpredictability. At any moment in the film, you suspect the credits could role at the end of the current scene, or the film could veer off in a whole new directions. You never know where the film will go, so you never get bored. You can’t be sure that a stand-off will play true to genre conventions, so they are much more exciting. It’s a cliché to suggest anything could happen, but the film feels looser and less constrained than more conventional films.

Welcome to the Candie shop...

Welcome to the Candie shop…

His shot composition and his technique are as strong as ever. There are some truly memorable moments here, from a visual standpoint. There’s a lovely image of cotton stained by bloodsplatter, or the walls of Candie’s plantation decorated with blood. “You know, I never thought burgundy was my colour before,” Django muses, but it suits him well. There’s also room for quirky visuals like a strangely enchanting shot of Samuel L. Jackson betwixt another character’s legs, or the surreal sight of a shotgun-wielding goon enjoying cake. It is white cake, of course.

The cast is superb. Foxx does great in the lead role, and his performance as Django really anchors the film. The rest of the ensemble is populated by superb actors in larger-than-life roles, so it is great to see him hold his ground so skilfully. Christoph Waltz is similarly impressive as Schultz, portraying a character who couldn’t be further from Hans Landa. Waltz enjoys the opportunity to play a truly virtuous character, after a couple of years of typecasting.

Jackson, Mississippi...

Jackson, Mississippi…

DiCaprio is superb as Candie. It’s a larger-than-life performance, and DiCaprio embraces it, chewing down on scenery like it was… well, candy. Don Johnson has a wonderful small role as another racist plantation owner who has to deal with his rather inept branch of the KKK and struggling to place a freed slave on the scale of “how to treat a guest.”

However, it is Jackson who is most unnerving in his portrayal of Stephen, the vicious and manipulative house slave. The character is so casual about his internalised racism, and so sickeningly sycophantic that it’s uncomfortable to hear him nod along with his employer (“sho’ is” and “sho’ isn’t) like some sort of living bobble-head. Jackson hasn’t been this good in years, and it’s a daring and powerful role. It’s fantastically creepy and it makes the skin almost crawl. Stephen is the character who really allows the film to explore the truly rotten heart of the institutionalised prejudice.

Django Unchained stand among the very finest of Tarantino’s output, and that is saying something. Do yourself a favour, and see it. It’s bold, it’s provocative, but it’s also thoughtful – without ever seeming too po-faced. It’s a film that must have been very difficult to get right, so it’s a miracle that Tarantino got it practically perfect.

10 Responses

  1. wonderful review! i totally agree that this is a very mature effort for tarantino and it is indeed jackson’s finest performance in years.

  2. It’s “Amistad”, and not “Armistad”.

  3. Tarantino seems to be born to make a movie like this. Can not wait to see it. Great review as far as I glossed over to not be spoiled.

  4. so glad you liked it too. very unlike any “slavery drama” before it. that’s because it’s not as simple as calling it that. it’s a poignant and deliberate stylized western with a very authentic story. can’t get any more real than that, even if it is a fantasy flick.

  5. Why the camp at places? Seemed out of place and hurt the movie. The KKK hood scene was funny, but it broke the pace, engagement, as did other campy scenes. Why do this to an otherwise intense and gripping movie? Was Tarantino conceding something? Would really like to understand this? Thanks.

  6. I have to say I also loved this film and Jackson was great and it was nice to see him playing a different character for a change rather than the usual ‘Action Man Badass’! The only problem I had with it is that it felt slightly stretched out at the end where they have a shoot out Django leaves then he comes back and they have another shoot out personally I think they could have wrapped that together with one big glorious shoot out! However my opinion on this could change when watching it in the comfort of my home lol!

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