Film review: Django Unchained (Director: Quentin Tarantino)
By Sascha Krieger
A group of black men walk. Day and night, through bright day and dark night, through desert and woodland, they wank, they stumble, they fall. A long, exhausting march with no aim, if they walk on, they will never arrive anywhere. Music plays, a song, wailing yet defiant. And on they go. Anywhere they’d like to be, one might add. As so often with Quentin Tarantino, it is all there right in the opening: the self-reference (the opening is reminiscent of the one in Jackie Brown), the key topic of the film, slavery, and the genre film atmosphere: This is after all an Italo-Western in the style of Leone or Corbucci we’re about to see – as we’re made aware through the opening son, the slow pace, the pointedly slow-motion-like photography, the melancholic mood, the sense of loneliness, the laconic hero on a lonely quest. An Italo-Western about a slave fighting for his freedom, his wife, his revenge, about slavery as a whole. If anyone can pull this off, it’s Tarantino. And he does.
When we meet him, the hero, aptly named Django after one of the genre’s great classics (the original Django, Franco Nero, has a short guest appearance) is a defeated man, hardly able to stand up or talk or think. He is rescued by a German-born bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, a friendly anti-Mephisto who lures Django back into reality. Is this a colonialistic, a patronising approach? Maybe not, Django doesn’t need much to return into life, he has after all a mission, one Schultz can help him with and so they form one of those strange Tarantino partnerships. And what starts out as an attempt to free the woman he loves – a German-speaking slave named Broomhilda, one of Tarantino’s famous quirky jokes – soon turns into a relentless revenge against all slavers, suppressors, torturer, in short: against the white.
No doubt this is pure Tarantino: the love of detail with which not only quotes but dives into the genre he is currently dealing with, the black humor, the abundant violence, grotesquely exaggerated and brutally realistic at the same time, the masterful choreography, the Tarantino style of narration full of witty dialogue that often turns into verbal showmanship and ultimately battle which in the end, invariably ends in cathartic bursts of violence. Schultz, brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz, is a master at this and so is his adversary Calvin J. Candie (equally memorable: Leonardo DiCaprio).
Django is not. Stone-faced, determined, quiet, Jamie Foxx plays him as a prototypical Leone or Corbucci hero. A silent angel of revenge, a tortured soul with a tortured body but an unscathed will. amongst all these jokers and showmen and tricksters he pursues his goal, completes his vengeance. Django works as the genre piece it is. It is first and foremost an Italo-Western, with its longing music, its mixture of brutality and irony, its lone wolf hero, its constant atmosphere of something being broken. Tarantino quotes and references but, most of all, he admires. Django is an homage to this long-ridiculed (sub-)genre and it is a great one.
But of course it is more than this. With the Nazi-slayer slash fest Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino had established alternative history as his new mission – with the one-mn assault on slavery that is Django Unchained he continues in this vein. As so often in his films, there is a good amount of over-the-top comic book flavor, grand speeches and carefully choreographed violence. Trash is not an insult for Tarantino but it remains a tool, no more. Especially the violence has two functions: On the one hand it is, as in Inglorious Basterds a cathartic cleansing, giving the victims the upper hand in an old-fashioned, almost childishly joyous triumph of good over evil. In the former film, the Jews defeat the Nazis, here it’s the slaves who overpower the white man. It is a particularly sly piece of irony that Django’s most dangerous adversary is a black man, the old house slave Steven (always spectacular in Tarantino films: Samuel L. Jackson). Here, the blacks are superior, a little simplistic but at least consistent.
Then there is the serious violence: the whippings, the illegal fights, a slave killed by dogs. There is no joy here, no irony, just a sense of brutality and, yes, outrage. This is what humans do to each other and this is what needs to stop. Quentin Tarantino’s films have always had a serious side, sometimes it has just been well-hidden. Django superbly captures the balance between the stark condemnation of suppression and hatred as well as the boisterous and at times hilariously enjoyable wild genre piece it is. There is no other filmmaker quite like Tarantino, no-one that loves film as much as him and no-one who can share this love in such a way. Masterpiece is a term often used by Tarantino fans for any of his films. With Django Unchained, it is not that far off the mark.