Django Unchained ★★★★

mild spoilers

"Hello, little troublemaker"

Quentin Tarantino has described Django Unchained as a "southern", as in a Western that takes place in the south, but one thing I did like about this was how it managed to be a mash-up of different Westerns through its varied use of locations: the muddy one-horse towns, the open prairie, snowy mountain trails, hissing swamps, and of course the cotton fields. The prospect of a Tarantino western was always a mouth-watering prospect to me, and Django delivers on the promise.

Just as Inglourious Basterds turned out to be something slightly different to what was advertised as his WWII guys-on-a-mission movie, this film also refuses to be some straight-forward genre piece. Tarantino has returned to his familiar theme of revenge as spiritual redemption, this time involving a freed slave who sets out to rescue his wife from the clutches of a plantation owner, in the process turning into every Wild West racist's worst nightmare: a black man on a horse with a Smith & Wesson, and in a vendetta kinda mood.

This director, and this kind of film, tackling the countrywide Holocaust that was slavery in 1800s America was always going to be problematic, and indeed it is, but still, it is commendable just how well the subject is handled overall. I actually admire the fact that instead of making a po-faced film about slavery, which has been the norm, for obvious reasons, Tarantino has instead made one that is faithful to the ideal of a Spaghetti Western, and has made it work. Here we have an avenging black man, riding into town, righting wrongs, and causing maximum carnage, blasting slave owners and rednecks to the ground as he goes.

This is Tarantino continuing on a roll after Inglourious Basterds, and, like that, this too has long, talky scenes fraught with tension, suddenly snapping into violence or comedy, or a combo of the two. And although I wouldn't say that this reached the peaks of Inglourious, it is more satisfying overall.
It might also be his best looking film? Great location stuff, as I said, I particularly liked the scenes in the Texas town, everyone gawping in a mixture of horror and amazement at Django on a horse, as if he's a black man in a Bentley. And the low key scene where Django and Dr Shultz are just sat in the saloon, talking and waiting for the sheriff to come and arrest them - the close ups of the foam being scraped off the beer reminded me of the equally lovingly shot of the strudel and cream in IB.

And it has several of the best performances in any of his films. Jamie Foxx is solid; I love how he bristles and then bottles his feelings during the Candieland dinner scene, several times his hand quietly pulls his gun, then reholsters, biding his time. Anyway, I can't imagine what Will Smith would have brought to the role, but I don't think he would have boom-boom shook the room quite as badassly as Foxx.

Samuel L. Jackson's character, the obsequious and evil Stephen, was absolutely terrifying. What a monster, and a brave move of Quent to have included a character like this: a black man who has been utterly corrupted and warped by the worldview and the power. It's troublesome to a degree, but I still think it was important to have a none heroic or noble black character represented here. Great scene-stealing as well.
And like Sam Jackson, Christoph Waltz is now fluent in Tarantinoese, and is able to spin Quentin's more florid wordplay into gold, while Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his career best performances, perfect as the cruel, spoilt, bored rich kid, Monsieur Candie. He brought a lot to the table, as well: It was DiCaprio's idea to have Candie interested in the quack science of phrenology, and when he cut his hand for real breaking a glass in the scene where Candie loses it, he just keeps rolling with it until the take was done. You can tell it's real, sticky blood too, although I doubt it was real when he smeared it over Kerry Washington's face.

It manages to be a very enjoyable film, even though it is peppered with intense and tragic scenes. I thought it managed fairly successfully to turn on a dime from comic, splatterama gun battles to upsetting scenes of brutality, not that it isn't jarring at times. But Django stands as a pretty great accomplishment, if only for the fact that Tarantino has managed to pack cinemas with mixed audiences to see a film in which a black slave takes out dozens of white, God-fearin racist fuckpigs, and ending with the strong, simple metaphor of the walls of the plantation mansion running in blood. This film will resonate.

This being a Spaghetti Western, though, there has to be a touch of sourness behind the triumphalism, and Stephen's final words to our heroes are "they'll hunt you down!". They ride off into the sunset, but what awaits them is unlikely to be a brave new dawn.

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