‘I’ ON CULTURE
Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is a gory, twisted piece of fun. It is an homage to spaghetti westerns of the 1970s, some Blaxploitation movies of the same era, mixed in with a sort of history (much of it not really historically accurate) to provide a guilty pleasure. Like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, it provides a form of revenge against the obscenities of history. And there is plenty to enjoy, even while feeling more than a bit uncomfortable about its use of violence, profanity and racism, all of which are front and center.
It takes place in 1858 (three years before the Civil War, not two years as the movie states, just one of several errors shown), and dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German wandering through the West, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx), part of a slave coffle, because Django can recognize a trio of brothers that the dentist is hunting. The two men create a relationship (the most interesting one in the film) as Schultz agrees to help Django free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who had been sold away from him earlier, in exchange for his help. When Django hears the offer, he gives the best line in the film, “Kill white folks and they pay you for it, too,” he asks, “what’s not to like?”
The two men go through a group of set pieces where they kill a whole group of incredibly stupid, vicious white men until they meet up with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who with great panache, plays the ultimate bad-guy white slave owner, full of oily charm with a vicious streak a mile wide. He owns Broomhilda. This leads to a series of battles in which Django essentially takes over the part of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no name,” a killing machine. To help the action along, Tarantino used six-shooters, which were actually developed after the Civil War, to allow his hero to kill more people. Dynamite had not been invented yet, either, but it also appears as a way of making some really nice explosions.
There has been some debate over racism in the film. The “n-word” is used more than 100 times. Even more of a bother is the treatment of most of the people. With the exception of Schultz, all the white people are twisted and nasty. The killing of a whole group of Ku Klux Klansmen (which was not even created until years later) is mostly just good, old-fashioned fun. The whites are evil, and with few exceptions, the black are servile and not all that bright. As a result, their deaths mean little.
Foxx portrays the relatively silent former slave well. He is the truly tough member of the team. Waltz, who won an Oscar as the real villain of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, is more complex, providing a focus for the first part of the movie, although his final scenes seem a bit hurried. DiCaprio’s Candie is just nasty villainous fun, allowing the actor to be both fun-loving and totally evil. He enjoys watching his large slaves wrestle to the death (an homage to Mandingo in there) and has Broomhilda in a “hot box” torture chamber when Django and Schultz arrive at his plantation. Samuel L. Jackson, almost steals the picture as the ruthless slave Stephen, a lot smarter and nastier than Candie, who throws a monkey wrench into Schultz and Django’s plan to get Broomhilda. There is a lot of violence in the film, but since most of the characters are nasty, the deaths mean relatively little emotionally. To keep up interest, Tarantino has to kill a lot of people spectacularly. Blood gushes; people fall in spectacularly different ways. Django is the target of dozens of bullets and never gets hit. The film is photographed beautifully, allowing lovely arrangement of body parts and blood.
This is a guilty pleasure. It was enjoyable to leave the rather pallid politically correct world for a while. In the long run, Django becomes another one of the superheroes on the screen. Most of his suffering has already happened; he is now intent on revenge. But the film does work. It is not a great film and, in some ways such as historical veracity or character development, not even a good one. But it does provide a wild ride.