Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There'll always be a place in my heart for Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, but in many ways these historical films show Tarantino at his best. They're not historical films in the way that, say, Lincoln is, but they are historical films in the way that Tarantino expects the audience to come in with a level of historical knowledge; to know when Inglourious Basterds departs from real-world events and why that is happening.

Django Unchained isn't as gleeful an exercise in alt-history as Basterds - there is some dispute over whether the "mandingo fighting" Leonardo DiCaprio's slave owner exults in really happened, and it's only fair to wonder whether Django's climactic assault on Mississippi's fourth-largest slave plantation would have started the Civil War two years early in this universe. For the most part, these are fictional characters fitting into a real world, and they do so with remarkable subtlety.

Yes, subtlety. It still feels weird calling a Tarantino film subtle, and of course Django is resolutely unsubtle in all the ways you expect from this director. I've never seen blood squibs like the ones in this film, which look like someone's tossed an entire pan of stewed tomatoes up in the air. But look at that mandingo fight scene again; the violence is fleeting, sometimes off-screen. The meaning of the scene and its impact comes from the eyes; the eyes of the white people gleefully watching, the eyes of the black people casting glances at each other, all knowing exactly what each glance means, a secret language in this system devoted to their destruction.

The eyes are, of course, the signature slot of the spaghetti Western genre, the mystery and suspense Leone found in Clint's baby blues. Tarantino's eyes are zipping around energetically in this film too; the jolting zooms, the tight close-ups, the lustrous emphasis on food and drink preparation that forms such an unexpected motif in his recent films. It reminded me of the scene where Adele goes into her first gay bar in Blue is the Warmest Colour and the camera joins in with her awestruck ogling of all those carefree same-sex couples; as in that film, here is a director who is often accused of voyeurism and morbidity throwing that accusation back in your face. Looking becomes a liberating act for the watcher and the watched, the throwing-away of a ragged shawl to let the world see the scars on your back.

What you gain from looking is shown by the development in Django's character; beginning as someone who can barely look a white man in the eye, his stature, independence and vocabulary enrich themselves with freedom until he can casually dominate a whole plantation without raising his voice. Will Smith famously passed on the title role because he felt Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz was the hero, not Django, and the obvious counter to this is to wonder if Smith stopped reading the script two-thirds of the way through. But Smith is correct, to an extent. Django doesn't spring out of those manacles at the start as a fully-formed badass, and to suggest he could is more insensitive to the legacy of American slaves than anything that ended up in this movie. When DiCaprio's rancid Calvin Candie wonders why slaves don't simply kill their masters, he overlooks the obvious answer - because men like him are responsible for a system where the slaves can't even imagine how that would happen. Django learns by watching Schultz - only after he sees it can he live it.

Schultz's death is my favourite moment of the movie, not because I dislike the character - he is another impossibly charming and seductive Christoph Waltz creation - but because of what it shows about the limits of unearned power. We have seen Schultz outwit countless sheriffs, smooth-talk his way out of so many life-or-death situations, but he dies because he can't take the easiest way out he's ever been given - shaking hands with Calvin Candie. Schultz nervously warns Django of the horrors of Candieland before they go in, but of course Django isn't the one who is unprepared for the horrors of slave trading. It's Schultz, the nice white liberal who politely apologizes for taking mild advantage of Django's slave status at the start, who can't cope with seeing what his race has perpetrated.

Candie's flaws, of course, are a bit more on the surface, but there's a similar dynamic in his use of the phrase "exceptional n***er" to describe Django, not realizing how the second word invalidates the first. You imagine he thinks himself quite forward-thinking to imagine a black man - one in ten thousand, but still - who could be as intelligent or brave as a white person. Like everything else about Candie, it's a complete sham. Tarantino teases you with the idea that Candie might be a cultured villain to match Basterds's Hans Landa - a Francophile with a bust of Nefertiti in the lobby - but Candie is a moron, lacking even the slightest knowledge of the French novels he keeps entombed in his library, and helpless without the guidance of Samuel L Jackson's Machiavellian house slave Stephen.

The revelation of Stephen as the movie's final villain is perhaps its biggest risk, not just in narrative but in political terms; is this the final snub to white supremacism, or an offensive suggestion that black people are their own worst enemies? I think the former, but there's no question over Jackson's glee at creating the Uncle Tom of your nightmares. The scene in which Stephen explains the relationship between Django and Broomhilda is an excellent one, played superbly by Jackson and DiCaprio, with Tarantino cutting and dollying across the line to destabilize the viewer's sense of the characters' relationship.

Broomhilda is the movie's weakest element; looking at the subplots cut out and the actors who had to drop out during shooting, the common denominator seems to be that they all revolved around her storyline, and the final cut confirms that Tarantino never worked out a way to give her agency while maintaining the tension of Django's attempts to rescue her. But Kerry Washington is incredibly committed even in this truncated role. The whole cast is sensational from Foxx down, even tiny parts like Russ Tamblyn's blowhard local marshal and Zoe Bell's masked slave trainer, who feels like an icon that no-one designed an iconic scene for. The overall feeling I get from Django Unchained is that it's Tarantino's Lolita; both a challenging exploration of a confrontational theme and a joyously comprehensive indexing of its maker's tics and recurrent obsessions. The dressage is so shit, though.

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