Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern ‘Antebellum’ Western is too self-indulgent, but still very entertaining

Django Unchained(2012), Quentin Tarantino’s 7th film as a director, is a homage to spaghetti-Westerns, Blaxploitation flicks and Wagner’s opera. The film, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, is a revenge-Western set in the Antebellum South.

“We participated in a hero’s journey — the hero here being Quentin,…And you scale the mountain because you’re not afraid of it. You slay the dragon because you’re not afraid of it, and you cross through fire because it’s worth it.”

Christoph Waltz while accepting the best supporting actor Oscar for “Django Unchained”

When one thinks of Quentin Tarantino’s films, then the classicalism, grace and slow-pace of Nineteenth-century opera is not what comes to mind, yet Tarantino, the master of hyper-violent pop-entertainment & postmodern filmmaking- whose movies are mainly homages to other movies, especially the more lowbrow kind (Exploitation, Spaghetti-Western, Kung-Fu Wuxia,…) – took inspiration from Wagner’s “Siegfried” (he third opera in the “Ring” cycle) for his 7th film, “Django Unchained.” “Siegfried” tells the story of the titular character as he grows into manhood to discover fear and love. Raised by the Nibelung Mime, Siegfried kills the dragon “Fafner”, acquires “Alberich’s” cursed ring, plunges through the circle of fire and awakens the sleeping Valkyrie, “Brünnhilde”. “Django Unchained” takes the essence of “Siegfried” and translates it to the Antebellum South. The movie follows Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed-slave, on a mission to free his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of her evil master, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio). In this mission, Django is aided by a German dentist turned Bounty-hunter Dr. King Shultz – the stand-in for ‘Mime’, who mentors Django, while Stephen Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s ‘Uncle Tom’ is in the place of Alberich. But that’s where all connection with Wagner’s opera ends, the film, in its tone, style and character interactions is a typical Tarantino film. Tarantino’s 6th film, “Inglorious Basterds” was a Spaghetti-Western version of a WWII movie- with heavy influences from Sergio Leone. This time, Tarantino is attempting a mishmash of Blaxploitation cinema and Spaghetti-Western; and here, Tarantino has chosen to pay homage to the other spaghetti-Western “Sergio”- Sergio Corbucci: the title of this film is inspired from Corbucci’s iconic 1966 Western “Django,” starring Franco Nero as the eponymous Western hero dragging a coffin behind him. This is not the first time that Tarantino has shown an affinity for Corbucci’s cinema: in his very first movie, “Reservoir Dogs”, the scene where Mr. Blonde slices the ear of Nash the cop is taken directly from “Django”. That’s not all, Tarantino was writing a book on Corbucci, when he stumbled upon the idea of making this film- because Corbucci presents such a horrible and ugly image of America, Tarantino found the style perfect for making a Western on the theme of “Slavery”.

Now coming to the actual plot of the film: In 1858, Texas, the former German dentist Dr. King Schultz meets the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) on a lonely road while the latter is being transported (along with several other slaves) by the slavers, Speck Brothers. Schultz is a bounty-hunter, who’s on the look out for the wanted outlaws, Brittle Brothers, and Django turns out to be the man who can point them out for him. When Schultz attempts to legitimately buy Django is thwarted by the slavers, Schultz shoots them down and free all the slaves. Schultz then proposes a deal to Django: if he helps him kill the Brittles, then he would give Django his freedom, a horse and $75. Django accepts the deal and Schultz trains him to be his deputy. They kill the “Brittle brothers” in Tennessee. Django tells Schultz that he would use the money to buy the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)- a slave who speaks German; they were parted when their previous master sold them separately. Schultz now proposes another deal to Django: if he teams-up with him during the winter, he would give him one-third of the rewards and help him to rescue Broomhilda. Django accepts this as well and they have a profitable winter hunting down outlaws.

After the winter, Schultz & Django goes to Gatlinburgh and learns that Broomhilda was sold to the ruthless Calvin J. Candie, who owns the Candyland Farm in Mississippi. Realizing that Candie wouldn’t be interested in selling a common slave, Schultz concocts a plan, by which they would fool Candie- an avid fan & promoter of Mandingo fighting – into thinking that they’re purchasing a Mandingo slave at top dollar, and then toss Broomhilda into the purchase for a nominal amount. The plan almost works, but they have underestimated Candie’s cruel and cunning house slave, Stephen Warren- who sniffs out their plan. In the end, Shultz is forced to pay top price for Broomhilda, but that’s not the end of it: after being forced to shake hands by Candie for successfully concluding the deal, an insulted Shultz shoots him dead, setting off a bloodbath. Shultz is killed and Django is captured, and sold off to a group of miners, but in true ‘Siegfried’ style, he overcome his captors, return to Candyland, kills everyone, blows up the place and rides off with Broomhilda.

Though all Tarantino films adhere to a certain cinematic aesthetic: unapologetic anti-heroes, dark humor, cartoonish violence, snappy dialogues, use of popular songs and music etc.. each film is different from the other- I mean “Kill Bill” is very different from “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds” is different from “Death proof,” but “Django Unchained” is one of those films that broadly follow the template of the previous film, “”Inglourious Basterds”. It has the same three character structure: the good anti-hero, the totally evil villain and the hero character who’s driven by personal revenge; it has the same revisionist attitude to a major historical tragedy relating to a marginalized race, and the narration is also very linear (much more linear than any Tarantino film); ultimately culminating in a (literally) explosive climax in which historical wrongs are righted through the medium of cinema. The Nazi-Europe in the previous film is replaced with Antebellum south; instead of Jews seeking revenge, we have black slaves; and ‘Jew Hunting’ Nazis are replaced with slavers and racist plantation owners. Only, this film is not as good, clever or well-crafted as “Basterds.” “Basterds” was more of a restrained and classy production, but here Robert Richardson’s photography is rugged and lurid, the production design make things look too ugly and bleak at times, while other times it’s too outlandish- like Candyland, which is designed to look like a fantasyland. The gunfights and the amount of red-blood spilled is extreme to say the least. The soundtrack, as usual in a Tarantino film, is an eclectic mix, but it doesn’t work as well with his other movies, because the mixture of Ennio Morricone’s music, opera sounds and modern rap just doesn’t gel. I guess the visual and aural design of the film is keeping in with the nature of the film – a combination of the fantastic Wagnerian opera and the gritty subject of Slavery, all treated within the subgenre of a ‘Corbucci’ Western. Corbucci makes films which are bleak, pessimistic and political- generally ant-fascist and anti-capitalist; his films does not have the polish and technical flourish of Sergio Leone films; his films look ugly, his landscapes are muddy, snowy and cloudy, not the bright, big sky, desert vistas of Leone. That’s what Tarantino is trying to replicate here. But apart from the title, the title song and Franco Nero’s cameo, there is no link between the stories\characters of “Django” and “Django Unchained,” but there’s a scene featuring some proto-Klansmen which seems to be a nod to the villains of “Django”; we also get a long section set in winter, which seems to be a nod to Corbucci’s “The Great Silence.”

But the biggest issue here is with the tone of this film: “Basterds”, or for that matter every other Tarantino film, makes it clear that the characters we see in a film are not ‘real’, they’re actually characters as taken from movies; the same thing with the violence too- it’s exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish, so that we know this is movie violence not real violence. And it’s the contrast between what is real and what is ‘movie land’ fantasy that sets up the satirical nature of Tarantino’s films. This is why we enjoy the humor in his films, and all his films are very jocular; we laugh at things where we are not suppose to laugh. This is how Tarantino elevates the ‘Exploitation’ material – that he’s so fond of working with – to a more higher, artistic plane. The visuals remind you of an ‘exploitation’ film, but the film is not- it’s a more profound and artistic work. “Basterds” maintained this tone brilliantly throughout, which is why Nazis hunting Jews and Jews violently killing Nazis during WWII was so much fun, but here the tone is inconsistent. Like all Tarantino films, this is supposed to be a ‘movie’ movie, and right from the opening, the film establishes itself to be a ‘period movie’ within a ‘Period movie’ – that’s to say this 2012 film tells a story- inspired from Norse legend and set in 1850’s America- through the aesthetic of a 1960s Spaghetti-Western (and 70s Blaxploitation cinema). The lurid opening title sequence, the bombastic title song and the fortuitous meeting of the two lead protagonists (in a fairy-tale like forest somewhere in Texas) all attest to this. And to top it all, The “Siegfried” legend is explicitly referenced in the film: In one early scene, Schultz relates the story of Siegfried to Django as the two of them sit around a campfire. As Shultz tells it: Siegfried endured the hardships- killing the dragon, climbing the mountain, crossing the fire, because the woman he loved was worth it, and Django replies that he knows how Siegfried feels. (on a side note: Waltz, who plays, Shultz, would quote the exact same lines – which is quoted at the beginning of this piece – in his Oscar speech when he won for best Supporting Actor- comparing Tarantino to Siegfried). Another thing to notice is that Broomhilda’s last name is von Shaft; there is a none-too-subtle suggestion that she and Django are forebears of Blaxploitation hero John Shaft; which means that that two characters who began life in a Norse legend, then became part of a German opera, and then became the hero & heroine of a postmodern Revenge-Western in 2012, gave birth to a ‘movie’ hero of the 1970s. This is something only Tarantino can accomplish, and this concept is right at the heart of Tarantino’s film aesthetic. Another brilliant ‘Tarantinoism’ is the scene where he brings together the ‘original’ Django (Franco Nero) and the current Django (Jamie Foxx) in a scene where Nero asks Foxx his name- the latter spells it out as “D-J-A-N-G-O, the ‘D’ is silent,” and Nero replies “I know.” By the way, Nero’s name in this film is “Amerigo Vessepi”- another Tarantinoism where the Italian who discovered America is linked to the Italian actor who became a star by working in ‘Westerns’ made in Italy.

But the film breaks this ‘movie’ movie template periodically: we have a brilliantly satirical instance of (movie) violence, followed by an instance where the violence and tragedy is played very straight, thus muddling our response towards the film. Take the first four instances of violence, where Shultz and Django are shooting down wanted outlaws (or proto-Klansmen), the scenes are all played for laughs; there is also a running gag in the film where blood is always splattered on something white- on cotton, on snow, on a white-horse, and even a white carnation on somebody’s coat-pocket. But then we get into the second half of the film, we have one ‘gritty’ violent scene after another- of Mandingo fighting, A runaway slave being torn-up by a pack of dogs, another runaway slave being locked up naked in a hot-box, a naked slave about to be castrated, etc.. The tone of the film completely changes as it ceases to be a satire (or self-referential), and becomes more ‘real’; in other words it becomes a true ‘exploitation’ film- that shocks us with ‘pornography’ of its visuals- rather than a ‘typical’ Tarantino film.

Now a case could be made that Tarantino is differentiating between the violence that’s meted out to the white folks, as opposed to the oppressive violence that the slaves had to endure. So whenever White-folks are killed, the violence is treated as fun, movie-violence, because it’s more of a ‘fantasy,’ while what the black-slaves had to endure was real, and hence its ‘realistic’ portrayal. That’s an interesting concept in theory, but Tarantino could not find the right cinematic language to transfer it to the screen. Also, all it amounts to is treating slavery seriously, but killing of the (white) slavers irreverently, which unbalances the whole issue. As an audience-member we are left dazed and confused by being suddenly hit by the gritty violence, as well as this constant shuffling of tones. This confusion also extends to the (over)use of the much criticized ‘N-Word.’ It was a word much used during the period in which the film is set in, but there are a lot of things in the film which are (intentionally) anachronistic to the period- the costumes, the guns, the set designs, hell even a lot of the story, so Tarantino’s obsessive usage of the word looks designed to create a reaction in the audience more than anything else; again an attempt to realistically portray the ‘Black’ experience of the period. “Basterds” worked so well because it did not dwell (too much) on the holocaust or scenes relating to the persecution of the Jews, so the tone remains consistent – that of filmic Jewish-revenge fantasy, but here the subject of slavery is far too personal and serious for Tarantino to treat it irreverently. He’s forced to delve deep into the ‘reality’ of the subject, which incidentally is at odds with his cinematic aesthetic. “Django Unchained” proves the limitations of the ‘Tarantino’ style. There are themes that cannot be handled effectively through his style of cinema, and an unflinching look at slavery is one of them. It’s not that genre films cannot handle serious social issues, they definitely can: there are several Westerns that deliver solid social commentary along with providing pure genre pleasures, but here, the director’s idiosyncratic vision results in confusion rather than perfect fusion.

But that doesn’t mean that the film is not entertaining, or it doesn’t have Tarantino’s genius with quirky characterization, set-pieces and wordplay- it has plenty of those too, and some of the stuff here ranks among Tarantino’s best. That’s why this film, despite its flaws, cannot be easily dismissed. The characters of King Shultz, Calvin Candie and Stephen Warren are three of the best characters Tarantino has ever created. Shultz is an arrogant, egotistical, liberal German, who hates slavery, and the American attitudes towards it. He is more of a loquacious, elegant ‘thespian’ who like to do things overdramatically and uses flowery language to keep his audience enthralled. He kills people rather sporadically, and wait for the lynch-mob to assemble, then he dramatically pulls out the ‘Wanted’ bill out of his pocket, and with some eloquent oration diffuses the situation, and rides off with his bounty. His love for the theatric leads to much comedy and tragedy in the film. He likes parading Django on a horse- at a time when blacks are not allowed to ride horses in the south; rubbing that image in the face of southern gentlemen, but this irrepressible attitude leads to a bloodbath in the film’s (first) climax. Calvin Candie is a young, entitled, arrogant, racist, idiot. He has lot in common with Shultz, but they are intellectually and morally (or politically) opposite. When the Francophile Candie feeds the slave- named D’Artagnan– to the dogs, it’s Shultz’s first encounter with the horrors of slavery; the image keeps gnawing at him, and when Candie bests him on the deal on ‘Broomhilda’, it pushes him to the edge. So when Candie wants to claim the ultimate victory by humiliating him further by forcing him to shake hands on the deal, Shultz can’t take it anymore. His pride hurt, his yen for theatrics resurfaces at the most inopportune moment, and he shoots down Candie- as he earlier shot down the wanted outlaws. As for Candie, his stupidity is his undoing- thus both these arrogant white men perish due to their own character flaws. It’s also a metaphor for the civil war that would come just a couple of years later. Both Waltz and DiCaprio are superb in their roles, but surely Waltz, who is born to delver Tarantino’s dialogues, is the scene-stealer here.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen Warren is one of the most unique characters in movies. He’s the real villain who’s running Candie and Candyland. He betrays his own race and, at the same time, manages to fool and rule over his white master(s) as well: take his cripple act, which he drops when all white folks are dead. It is through him that Tarantino forces the contemporary African-American viewers to acknowledge the role some of their forbearers played at the time in sustaining the system of slavery. The manner in which the character is conceived and played – all glaring eyes and exaggerated mannerisms – shows the courage of both Tarantino and Jackson. This is truly one of the brilliant aspects of the film. But compared to these three, the characterization of Django and Broomhilda pales. We never get the ‘hero’s arc’ in Django’s transformation, despite the fact that the film is close to three hours – for a few initial minutes, he’s a slave, and then boom he’s a superhero. It also doesn’t help that Foxx lacks star charisma, and he plays the role too tightly wound. The role definitely required someone as charismatic as ‘Will Smith,’ especially in the film’s problematic second half, when Django is all but drowned out by the other three actors\characters. Kerry Washington looks sufficiently wounded and lovely as Broomhilda, but she has nothing more to do other than been be the damsel waiting to be saved from her predicament. By the way, Don Johnson turns up in an amusing cameo as a proto-Klansman, but the elaborate joke the predates a vigilante-raid – regarding the spooky masks they wear – laugh out loud as it is, looks more suited in “Blazing Saddles” than in this film.

Though this film is designed on the lines of a Corbucci Western, they are several nods to classic American Westerns. A lot of the lensing of the outdoors is reminiscent of John Ford films; and the trope of the older mentor and the young protégée traversing the American West is from classic Westerns like “The Searchers,” “Red River” and “Nevada Smith.” Tarantino also creates some great humor from these situations- like the 18th century ‘Blue Boy’ dress that Django parades around in as Shultz’s valet; Django, newly freed, doesn’t know any better, and Shultz doesn’t dissuade him either; or the scene where Django target practicing on a snowman figure; and of course that giant molar wobbling over Shultz’s wagon. The conversational set pieces here does not have the buildup of “Basterds” (or “Pulp Fiction”)- the best scene is the long dinner sequence, where all the principals are present. It’s a slow-burn sequence attempting to emulate the ‘Tavern’ scene in Basterds; it’s great fun, but it falls short of the former in its effectiveness. There are great dialogues as usual, with Waltz’s German using highbrow European- English terms in his language, only to be told by the listener ‘to speak in English.’ Tarantino himself appears late in the film as a dimwitted Australian miner, who gets blown up by Django. All this is very very entertaining, and as I said, the film is no way a disappointment. It’s obvious that Tarantino loves Westerns, and he know what makes a Western work. He also knows how to entertain the audience; and I hope that he makes a real, entertaining Western – in his own ‘style’ of course- without being bogged down by serious issues, or having to come across as ‘important.’ Both “Django..” and the follow-up, “The Hateful Eight” suffers on account of Tarantino’s obsession with tackling serious issues and making important statements; also his self-indulgence- these movies are very long (and I love long, epic films) but there’s not enough meat in these films to justify the length. The length is spend on Tarantino indulging in one or more of his fetishes- introducing a new character to recall an old movie\character, or just a long conversation scene for the heck of it, which is not very interesting. All in all “Django Unchained” is a mixed bag, but at the time of its release, the film was well received by the critics and the audiences. Tarantino won an Oscar for the screenplay, and the film became the director’s biggest box office hit.

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