Django Unchained – Tarantino tackles slavery Spaghetti Western style

Following on from his (alternative) World War Two flick Inglourious Basterds, writer and director Quentin Tarantino has made another film centring on the theme of revenge, this time around the issue of slavery. Set in 1858, 2 years before the Civil War, the titular slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is found and bought by dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Except he isn’t a dentist, but a ruthless bounty hunter. He needs Django’s assistance in finding the Brittle Brothers – 3 slave owners who Django previously worked for and who are worth a lot of money, dead or alive. Django agrees, but has bigger goals in mind now his freedom has been bought. He intends to find his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was cruelly taken away from him when she was sold to a different owner. And Django will do whatever it takes to get her back.

Django Unchained has all the usual trademarks of a Tarantino film: uber-cool style, slick direction, excellent cast, references aplenty, and scenes brimming with overwrought tension. However, as with any of his films, it is mostly the bold, uncompromising, yet entertaining story and script that sticks in your mind. The story of Django and his journey from helpless slave to revenge-seeking bounty hunter is one that keeps you watching – a journey that you want him to succeed in. There are the usual scenes throughout filled with funny, pithy dialogue which again proves Tarantino’s skill at writing outlandish yet realistic characters and moments. He also creates some scenes that will now be remembered as classics in amongst his other works. And although it clocks in at just under three hours, it doesn’t feel like it. Tarantino keeps the pace going, making every single moment as gripping as the last, which is an amazing achievement considering the scope of the story.

Tarantino’s previous works have also shown how he likes to use a different sort of genre every time he makes a new film. He has tackled Western styles before in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, but here he goes full-out by making a Spaghetti Western, complete with cowboys, desert vistas and shootouts. But at the same time, Tarantino puts his own unique spin on the genre through the use of the slavery story alongside the regular Western themes (making it a sort of Southern Western almost). His direction and style also create a fresh take on the genre – all crash zooms and whip pan cameras; as does his use of music, Tarantino again creating a brilliant soundtrack of classic Western style music alongside contemporary rap and RnB.

The cast is always something that makes a Tarantino film memorable and worth watching, his films always being filled with more than one larger than life quirky character. And it’s the same with Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx makes for a more than suitable hero in Django, creating a perfect character: he’s cool, calm and quiet on the outside, but on the inside brimming with murderous revenge. However, although he is the title character of the film, it is often Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz who outshines him. After playing the villainous Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz now plays a gentlemanly good guy who abides slavery, but who is happy to kill bad people for a lot of money. Waltz gets some of the best and funniest lines in the film which he delivers with charm and glee, creating a brilliantly charismatic and entertaining character in Dr. King. If he doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, which he is nominated for in this, I will be very disappointed.

However one person in Django who has (again) been ridiculously overlooked for even an Oscar nomination is Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, the villainous owner of one of the biggest plantations in Mississippi. And it is a role unlike any DiCaprio has played before. DiCaprio makes him a creepy, slimy individual who is calmly confident and who keeps his true horrific nature hidden. But his real self threatens to flood out in the most awful of ways at any moment. Any scene with him in is crafted to perfection and is brimming with tension. Samuel L. Jackson also makes up the main cast as another menacing yet brilliant character – Candie’s right-hand slave Stephen who has lived with him for years. He plays Stephen as a stereotypical ‘Uncle Tom’ character, highlighting the racist attitudes back then and even now, as he grovels at Candie’s feet so he can stay in his favour. In comparison to all these brilliant characters though, the character of Broomhilda often feels overlooked. Kerry Washington plays her to perfection as a strong-willed woman and she is excellent in challenging scenes that are sometimes difficult to watch. But Tarantino gives her little screen time and not much to do when she IS there (with the exception of a brilliant German-speaking scene), making her feel like a minor character when she should be more prominent.

One of the criticisms that others have said about Django Unchained, as well as many of Tarantino’s other films, is the use of violence. Here Tarantino uses it throughout and uses blood in bucketful’s. A shootout scene uses almost cartoonish OTT blood splats, similar to what was used in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Another criticism of the film is that some people have said it does not portray slavery in a serious way, instead using comedy and stylish moments to gloss over the true horror of the time. I would completely disagree on both these points. In fact one thing Tarantino consciously does is to not use humour for any of the moments in which violence is being perpetrated against the slaves. It is the moments in which violence is being committed against the baddies that he uses the more outlandish revenge-seeking violence. This is the entire point of the film – the almost cathartic fantasy of Django having revenge in the most horrific way against those that have wronged him acting as a metaphor for all the slaves seeking vengeance against their white, rich owners but who couldn’t do so. That Tarantino still manages to show this fantasy side alongside the serious issue of slavery and not have either one subvert the other in terms of importance is a great accomplishment. The criticism of the amount of violence used though is down to how much people can stomach that sort of thing, but I would say that the violence has a point too. Leave out the violence and the film wouldn’t make you flinch, wouldn’t make you horrified at what you’re watching. And Tarantino would have then been criticised for whitewashing over the issue entirely.

Django Unchained is up there with Quentin Tarantino’s best. He uses his trademark cool, quirky style and superb script and cast to create a compelling and entertaining revenge story that isn’t afraid to also portray the hard-hitting serious issue of slavery as well. And now Tarantino can tick Spaghetti Western of his list of genre films to make. He has stated that Django Unchained will be the second film in a trilogy of revenge films. But whatever QT does next, the world will all be waiting in great anticipation.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on February 15, 2013.

2 Responses to “Django Unchained – Tarantino tackles slavery Spaghetti Western style”

  1. Agreed, thought it was a great film, full of what Tarrantino does best, it’s almost like a comic book western and is probably one of his most enjoyable films – great review!

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