Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest offering to the silver screen, pays homage to the traditional spaghetti-Western in possibly his most accomplished film to date. A two and a half hour epic, Django Unchained (pronounded ‘Jango’ – “The ‘D’ is silent” Foxx’s character tells us in laconic counterpoint to Waltz’s verbosity) explores in graphic detail the horrors of the antebellum slave trade in the American Deep South. Whilst Tarantino has once again been accused of over-zealous onscreen violence, there is a marked difference in this film from much of his previous work. Although the closing half an hour sees the director return to the comfort of the familiar, with large-scale, highly stylized killing, the majority of the film presents violence in its true horror – with the audience being forced into silent voyeurism of several uncomfortable scenes. The ending of the film, a trademark Tarantino bloodbath, complicates the otherwise important message: that violence is not entertaining. However, as we delight in the rapid, desensitized slaughter of the film’s conclusion, one cannot but feel a pang of hypocrisy; the condemnation we are asked to show towards the bare-knuckle “mandingo” fighting that forms the lynchpin of the film, is the probably fictional 19th century equivalent of what we are watching on screen. One violence-as-entertainment is being replaced for another. Whether Tarantino is aware of this irony is a moot point, what is important is that the audience recognises it.
Django Unchained follows the exploits of German-American bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christopher Waltz) and his partner, the ex-slave Django (Jamie Foxx), as they seek to purchase the freedom of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the cotton plantation of Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Under the pretense of wishing to purchase a “mandingo” fighter, a brutal sport in which African-American slaves are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of their owners, Dr. Schultz and Django are invited to Candie Land, the estate of the notorious slaver Calvin J. Candie. Whilst there, the two men’s deception is foiled by Monsieur Candie’s butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and a fight for survival ensues.
Stylistically, the film is incredibly complex, with Tarantino’s extensive knowledge of cinema coming to the fore as he plays with traditional genres. Small, often inconsequential touches are used to locate the film in a spaghetti-Western mold. In the opening sequences, for example, we see the rapid zoom-in and zoom-out that is a hallmark of Sergio Leone’s 1960s style, as well as the extreme close-ups of protagonists’ faces. Django Unchained pays its respects also to its namesake, Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django, which was refused a certificate in Britain until 1996 on account of its violence; the inclusion of the original’s soundtrack is a fitting homage to the Italian filmmaker’s work. However, these period motifs are set in stark counterpoint other elements of the film’s scoring. Original tracks for Django Unchained, including ‘100 Black Coffins’ by Rick Ross and ‘Freedom’ by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, show off contemporary African-American music and indicate the relevance of the film’s examination of racial issues for the contemporary viewer.
In spite of the weight of the issues depicted, the film is imbued with a darkly satirical humour. This reaches its apex in one of the best scenes of the film, in which an amateur collection of Southern racists, who are seen as a pre-cursor to the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan, squabble over the poor construction of their white hoods. Turning to the rest of the group, one member declares with unflinching sincerity: ‘I think we all think the bags was a nice idea. But, not pointing any fingers, they could of been done better. So how ’bout, no bags this time, but next time, we do the bags right, and then go full regalia.’
The quality of the acting need only be mentioned to say that it is sublime. Waltz returns with a stunning performance; having won an Academy Award for his last outing with Tarantino, he more than deserves his nomination in this year’s category. Foxx is also excellent, with Django’s growing confidence giving the actor full scope to inhabit the heroic Western role. However, it is DiCaprio’s performance that is captivating; his embodiment of the Southern slaver is as entrancing as his character is appalling. Final plaudits must go to Jackson, whose witty repartees with DiCaprio elevate the film and provide a dark comedy to the underbelly of the film.
There will of course be controversy surrounding any American film that explores racial issues in such a way, with filmmaker Spike Lee suggesting that the spaghetti-Western genre of Tarantino’s film serves only to undermine the gravity of this deplorable period in America’s history; however, the film succeeds on two grounds: firstly, the genre of the film allows the narrative to explore the deeper crevices of slavery, since they are the latent rather than predominant foci of the film; secondly, the film uses a combination of satire and sincerity without didacticism, in order to propel its social criticism. At its very basic, Django Unchained is a thoroughly enjoyable film; however, layered upon this are complex cinematic allusions that will keep any film-lover satisfied.
W. J. Humphries