The western has always been the American self-portrait. And while some of those portraits attempt to paint their subject in good light (High Noon, Stage Coach and How the West Was Won) the most resonantly powerful westerns are those with the bravery to paint the ugly truth (Unforgiven, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West). Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (Django) doesn’t just illuminate the most shameful parts of U.S pre-Civil War history, it infuses the flavours of the Blaxploitation genre to amplify the enduring resonance of oppression – and hence the need to discuss it.
A German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), to aid in the capture of particularly illusive prey. In exchange for his assistance Django’s promised help rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio.
Foxx is such an impressive and malleable performer. Oppressed, separated from his beloved Broomhilda, hopelessness and grief figuratively mirror his literal shackles. And yet, once King liberates Django however, Foxx’s inner fault line shifts and magma courses through his veins. With those fiery eyes and magnetic physical presence, you’re left staring into the precipice of a volcanic force waiting to be unleashed. Waltz represents European civilisation capitalising on America’s infancy. The erudite, slippery, cunning, philanthropist exploits the universally stupid and categorically uncivilised occupants of pre-Civil War Texas. Waltz has a showman’s presence that is infectious. There’s a grandiose, oratory quality to his delivery that you cannot help but be focused and grinning with anticipation with every word that’s about to drip from his mouth. Waltz gets raw as he exposes just how Schultz is haunted by the brutality toward the slaves. It’s a gripping contrast to see him wrestling with these acts that are fundamentally perverse to his soul, despite his trade in scalps. DiCaprio’s petulant faux-aristocrat Candie treads the tight rope between pomp and high order violence. It’s amazing to see his ascent to a 70s Robert De Niro level of consistency. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen provides a categorically large and over the top performance, as Calvin’s butler that totally disarms you when it’s flipped to reveal the extent of his rabid survival instincts.
From riders on sun-drenched prairie, to fur draped cowboys – their horses squelching through fresh snow, to entry into hostile territory framed through a hanging noose; Tarantino brings the visual essence from the best Western’s into play here. The heat sears, the grim of muddy town’s awakening sticks and the snow scapes feel blisteringly cold, there’s all the sublime grandeur and none of the gloss.
Django mixes stylised blood and flesh spattering brutality with bone breaking horror in a manipulative rhythm. King dispatches the slave traders and his routine bounties with ‘painterly’ theatrics; while Django relishes the tearing flesh. For this reviewer one of the most powerful scenes in Tarantino’s oeuvre is Mr Blonde’s (Michael Madsen) ear removal in Reservoir Dogs. The potency in that scene is in Tarantino’s lyrical movement away from the overt violence to another part of the room – forcing the audience to unleash the power of their imaginations on the brutality of the torture. There is a scene in Django that Tarantino starts out in a similar illusive way, only to haunt you with the echoes of the violence flashing in Schultz’s consciousness. Tarantino makes the themes overt that Blaxploitation films infer with subtext.
And it wouldn’t be Tarantino without pitch perfect beat poetry of his scripting. In the same manner as Inglorious Basterds Tarantino’s characters impose themselves onto history, fast-tracking African American empowerment pre-Civil War. The quartet of Waltz, Foxx, Di Caprio and Jackson are staggeringly qualified to navigate the symphonic words that the performers make the words impossibly better.
Django Unchained is a contemporary revisionist western where Tarantino’s characters have the magic to actually revise history. And it’s fitting that one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time is using the western and blaxploitation genres to connect the enduring blemish on the American psyche – only to set loose a bad motherfucker to set it right.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christophe Waltz, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio