Django Unchained Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins The Weinstein Company
Rated R | 165 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2012
“I need a hundred black coffins for a hundred bad men / A hundred black graves so I can lay they ass in.” – Rick Ross
Inspired by Django, the 1966 Italian film directed by Sergio Corbucci, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino‘s seventh feature-length film: a Spaghetti Western set in America’s Deep South.
The film blends Sergio Leone-style filmmaking and Tarantino’s signature themes of revenge and fetishized violence with fairytale fantasy to create Once Upon a Time in the South.
1863. Texas. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a freed slave on a mission to rescue his wife, Broomhilda, from the clutches of the deplorable Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His companion is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born bounty hunter with a salt-and-pepper beard who travels the American South collecting rewards on outlaws and other such nefarious individuals.
Waltz is best known for playing the insidious Colonel Hans Landa aka “The Jew Hunter” in Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds. In many ways, Django Unchained is the spiritual sequel to that film, which provided the ultimate in revenge fantasy by having Jewish-American soldiers machine gun Hitler’s face off. Here, Waltz is not a despicable foil but rather a vigilante who serves as the Yoda to Django’s Luke Skywalker, teaching him the bounty hunting business so he can track down his wife and free her from the shackles of her master.
Her master, Calvin J. Candie, is a cruel-but-charming Francophile (who can’t speak a word of French) with an affinity for Mandingo Fighting. At his Candieland Plantation, Candie orchestrates brutal fights to the death between slaves. At this castle built of blood and cotton, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is a house Negro – whored out to Candie’s guests seeking the finest in African flesh.
Broomhilda is not the heroine we’ve grown accustomed to in Tarantino’s films. Unlike Uma Thurman’s The Bride or Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna, Washington’s character is very much a damsel in distress – a princess condemned to torture at the hands of dungeon masters. While she demonstrates personal strength by repeatedly running away from the plantation and suffering unspeakable horrors in Candie’s ‘hot box,’ Broomhilda won’t survive this Hell unless her man Django can rescue her.
Standing in his way is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s steadfast servant and, as Jackson puts it, “the most hated Negro in cinematic history.” In private, Stephen is more than just a slave – he is Candie’s confidant and, in many ways, his adviser. Stephen sees Django as a threat to his way of life and the comfort he enjoys as Candie’s pet. Jackson’s white-haired slave is quite possibly one of the best characters written by Tarantino – a repulsive, loyal individual who is nothing if not fascinating to watch on screen.
Django Unchained represents an interesting scenario in which three supporting actors (Jackson, DiCaprio, Waltz) deliver such rewarding, layered performances that it’s impossible to truly discern who outshines who. Foxx, a Texas-native who rides his own horse in the film, embodies the slave-turned-cowboy with a quiet intensity and subtle strength that almost seems out of place in comparison to Jackson and DiCaprio’s over-the-top portrayals.
Tarantino’s film suffers, however, from tonal inconsistencies and surface-level emotional depth that prevents the viewer from fully connecting with Django’s struggle as a slave and the hatred that fuels his vengeance. We are introduced to him in chains, shuffling along a dirt road in the cold with his brothers in bondage – his back is covered in scars from lashings, but we know little of the atrocities he has experienced or the cruelty he has endured. We must simply accept that he is a slave, and as such his life is one of torment and anguish.
Before we can truly understand Django’s hardships, he is freed by Waltz and recruited into the bounty hunting business – where he is apparently a natural crack shot with a pistol. On the surface, Django’s character develops from slave to heroic gunslinger, but internally his progression can only be assumed. To his credit, Foxx delivers Tarantino’s signature dialogue with ease – imbuing Django with charisma and style as he whips the backs of his former masters and shoots up ignorant racist scum with a steady hand.
Django Unchained is absolutely entertaining – but it’s difficult for me to regard Tarantino’s film as anything more than a hyper-violent cartoon. Tarantino’s movies don’t say anything anymore. Since 2003, Tarantino has repackaged the same story of vengeance time and time again. Kill Bill was the story of a woman seeking revenge against the man who wronged her. As previously noted, Inglourious Basterds was the ultimate revenge fantasy – showing Jews carve Swastikas in the foreheads of Germans. Here, in Django Unchained, it’s a black man seeking retribution against the white man.
It seems like Tarantino just chooses a new genre to fetishize, writes a script filled with obscure references and racial slurs, throws a few hundred gallons of blood on it, and calls it a day. Django Unchained is equal parts Death Wish, Shaft, Taxi Driver, and Bonanza. Make The Bride a black man and turn the swords to guns and you have essentially the same story Tarantino told us 10 years ago.
I thoroughly enjoyed Django Unchained, as I enjoyed straightforward genre films like The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but even those summer blockbusters had more going on beneath the surface than Tarantino’s Southern-fried slavery yarn. It’s fun and ‘awesome,’ but it certainly isn’t shocking or original in any way – it’s just more of the same.
In five years, Tarantino films could become the cinematic equivalent of Glee mash-ups. You take two genres you wouldn’t think to combine and then have pretty people belt out lyrical dialogue in sing-song manner. It’s all become so predictable. What’s next? A science-fiction meets Italian ‘Giallo’ horror film that uses elements of Blaxploitation and ’80s John Hughes high school flicks? Oh, and don’t forget vengeance!