The Good, the Bizarre, and the Vengeful—Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained,
by Jim Reed
Over the past 20 years, Quentin Tarantino has settled in as one of the premiere filmmakers out there, creating movies that are at the same time satisfyingly fresh and as familiar as any movie we’ve ever seen. The film stars the brilliant (and once again Oscar-worthy) Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter who purchases the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him find and kill the Brittle Brothers. Schultz, abhorrent to the notion of slavery, grants Django his freedom and promises to help him rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now a slave in the bizarre world of the Candieland plantation.
The movie is broken into three significant portions: 1) Bounty Hunting, 2) Candieland, and 3) Revenge. Almost all movies are broken into three portions—beginning, middle, and end, with two significant plot points dividing the beginning from middle and middle from end—but all three portions usually roll seamlessly into the other. Django does this as well, but its portions are so vivid that they feel, in some ways, disconnected. This is not a knock against the film, just an observation, though I do believe Tarantino could have cut about 20 minutes from the film and not missed anything.
Django almost feels like two distinct movies mashed into one. The hour plus before we enter Candieland is, albeit highly entertaining, pretty standard fare. It’s what you might expect from a “buddy cop” film. Once we are introduced to Calvin Candie (played with a fell charm by the sedulous Leonardo DiCaprio) things start to get surreal. As the characters march toward the plantation, it is as though they, and we, are entering another world; one with a horrifying sense of justified morality, and charmingly playful barbarism. The vision of life at Candieland is saturated by a disturbing lack of humanity hidden beneath a cheerful, fanciful façade. So it is little wonder that events transpire as they do in the last 40 minutes, because Django and Schultz are nearly coming out of their boots in seething fury, as they are the only people, outside of some of the slaves, who seem to see the tragic evil inherent in the normalcy of oppressive civilization.
Tarantino has always had a flare for dialogue (which is again brilliant here), but this is a film dictated as much by atmosphere and self-reflexivity as anything else. Django Unchained, as many have noted, is a Spaghetti Western love story. There are shots throughout the film, such as the wide variety of quick zooms, as well as a shot of splattered blood on a cotton plant, that are plucked almost directly from Sergio Leone films, and Blaxploitation westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s. The soundtrack is brilliant, with a number of songs written specifically for the film, and hip-hop mixed in at the opportune times. To watch this film is to watch the films that have come before it, that have shaped it, and informed its ideology.
In his last two films, this and 2009’sInglourious Basterds, Tarantino has wrestled two of the greatest corporate human atrocities of the past 300 years—slavery and Nazi treatment of the Jews. In both he is revising history, giving a reparation narrative of the oppressed overcoming the oppressor, of the weak taking hold of power. Both are egalitarian films, but the lasting impact of Django, for me, is the love story. In the end it truly is the story of a prince come to rescue a princess. Why? In the words of Dr. King Schultz, “Because she’s worth it.” Schultz, the powerful, has enabled Django, the weak, to become powerful to the detriment of his own powerful standing. Django is worth it. Broomhilda is worth it. All people are worth it.
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