Being a fan of Quentin Tarentino can be a rewarding, but often frustrating experience. It’s rewarding because Tarentino is one of the most consistent and perennially relevant filmmakers alive, it’s frustrating because the rest of the world frequently perceives Tarentino to be something he’s not. Namely, people seem to be obsessed with the notion that Tarentino is some kind of gore-hound and that his films are among the most violent films ever made, which is almost categorically untrue. It is true that Tarentino is unlikely to make a G-rated film any time soon, but his films aren’t any more graphic than the works of Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, or any number of other auteurs whose names haven’t become synonymous with blood and guts. Sure, some people get killed in Tarentino’s movies and violence is a theme throughout his work but his body counts are much lower than anything you’d see in the average Hollywood action movie and more of the blood is off screen than people seem to think. His latest film is not going to do anything to dislodge Tarentino’s reputation for bloodlust and that’s a shame because, as usual, there’s a lot more going on in it.
Set two years before the Civil War, the film opens with a group of shackled slaves being transported on foot by two armed men on horseback. After walking for days and nights they are approached by a man calling himself Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) who claims to be a dentist. After a brief altercation, Schultz shoots one of these men dead, disarms the other, and has the survivor sign a bill of sale for one of the slaves who goes by the name Django (Jamie Foxx). As it turns out, Schultz is interested in Django because he’s a bounty hunter and he believes this slave will be able to help him track down a trio of people who are wanted dead or alive and have a large price on their heads. The two of them are quickly able to track all of these men down and take them out with relative ease. Schultz sees that Django has an aptitude for bounty hunting and offers to take him under his wing and train him in the trade. Django agrees, but only under the condition that Schultz help him track down and free his wife (Kerry Washington), who turns out to owned by a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
I think a big part of why people seem to think Tarentino’s films are more violent than they really are is because he doesn’t present the violent scenes in his films within a moralistic framework and he also has a tendency to mix violence with comedy. Django Unchained, which brings an irreverent eye to what is arguably the most disgusting aspect of America’s history, may be the apotheosis of this potentially uncomfortable blend. One could argue that he did the same thing with the Holocaust in his last film, Inglourious Basterds, but that film primarily focused on other aspects of the Second World War than Hitler’s genocide. Django Unchained on the other hand takes a very unflinching view of how African Americans were treated in the antebellum era. And yet… it’s also hilarious. It might be the closest that Tarentino has come to making an outright comedy. It should be noted from the beginning that none of this comedy is directed at the victims of slavery. All of the comedy here that isn’t the result of Tarentino’s usual wit is comedy directed directly at the stupidity of Southern racism. No American film has been this unflinchingly interested in the absurdity of hate since Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Beyond that, there is something cathartic about seeing a strong black man fight back against slave holders.
Beyond the subject matter, Django Unchained definitely has everything one would want from a Tarentino film, maybe too much. The film is clearly a tribute to the Spaghetti Western genre from the typeface of the title cards to the look of the sets and of course the name of the protagonist (which is borrowed from a 1966 spaghetti western starring Franco Nero). You can tell why Tarentino loves this genre so much. The Corbuccis and Leones who made the original spaghetti westerns were Europeans with no connection to the actual American West. Like Tarentino they were essentially making movies based on what they saw in other movies. This affinity for the genre means that Django Unchained borrows many of the original genres idiosyncrasies like heroes with superhuman gunfighting skill and a general disinterest in historical accuracy, and this may be offputting to some audiences, but at the same time it serves as something of a reminder of how fun those films could be in the first place.
The film opens with Luis Bacalov’s theme from the original 1966 film Django and like previous films it features a lot of old selections from Sergio Leone scores. Unlike previous Tarentino films, Django Unchained includes a number of original songs from contemporary artists like John Legend, Rick Ross, and Anthony Hamilton as well as a brand new song penned by Sergio Leone and sung by an Italian singer named Elisa. Like the film itself, these songs incorporate sounds that are associated with Spaghetti westerns but which are made with modern sensibilities and tropes. I think these songs are meant to play into the tradition of the original music that was often featured in Spaghetti westerns like the aforementioned Luis Bacalov song and they fit in pretty well with the older tracks on the soundtrack by artists like Jim Croce and Johnny Cash. It’s not Tarentino’s best soundtrack, but it is nice to see him branching out after the somewhat conservative Inglourious Basterds soundtrack.
As usual, Tarentino has filled the film with interesting actors in pretty much every role from the stars to the minor bit parts. Fans of exploitation films will recognize a number of faces like Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, and Tom Wopat. There are also some more contemporary character actors like Walton Goggins and a noteworthy cameo by Jonah Hill. Of the actors in larger roles, the obvious scene stealers are Christoph Waltz (who speaks in a sort of formal dialect throughout the film to hilarious effect) and Samuel L Jackson (who shows up late in the film as a sort of Uncle Tom figure at a plantation the heroes are trying to infiltrate). I was less fond of Leonardo DiCaprio’s work as a vicious plantation owner. His work doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, but as far as villains in Tarentino movies go he doesn’t hold a candle to what Cristoph Waltz was able to do in a comparable role in Inglourious Basterds. I also didn’t necessarily love Jamie Foxx in the lead role. Foxx does alright in the film at times, but he’s never really able to turn himself into a real silent tough-guy in the vein of a Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. At his core, Foxx just seems like too much of nice guy to really take on the rage that is supposed to exist at the core of this character.
In short this has everything you’d want from a Tarentino film, and yet, I’m not sure that really adds up to one of his best efforts. In many ways the film feels like something of a big middle finger from Tarentino to his critics. Do you think Tarentino’s films are too long? Well this one isn’t any shorter. Do you think he borrows too heavily from the aesthetics of 60s and 70s exploitation films? Well, this one borrows more heavily from them than any film he’s made since the Kill Bill movies. Do you think that Tarentino has a bad habit of making ill-conceived cameos in his films? Well he’s got one here, and it requires him to adopt an absolutely ludicrous Australian accent. Do you think he’s a bit too eager to include racial epithets in his movies? Well, there are probably more uses of the N-word in this one than in any other film to ever get a wide release. And yes, if you think he’s way to glib with the violence in his films you’ll be “happy” to know that dozens of people are killed in this one and each one dies with a geyser of candy colored blood spurting from their arteries.
As a hardcore fan of the guy’s work I was more than willing to go along with all of the above, but this is not necessarily the film I’d use if I was going to try to defend his work to one of his detractors. More to the point, the film generally feels like it’s a step backwards from what Tarentino was able to accomplish with Inglourious Basterds. That film was almost certainly Tarentino’s most mature effort since Jackie Brown and in its own odd way managed to capture the magic of Sergio Leone’s style in tempo more successfully than this more direct homage ever does. I certainly enjoyed the film, but I enjoyed it more as a surface level exploitation movie than I did as an auteur piece or as a drama. In many ways it’s closer to being the film that Tarentino’s detractors accuse him of making rather than the film he’s truly capable of.
***1/2 out of Four