Quentin Tarantino’ encyclopedic knowledge of “B” movies (both foreign and domestic) allows him to create paeans to the genres of these films. Apparently he watched every film in the video store where he used to work. As a writer/director, he started with crime stories (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), then did 70’s black-ploitation (Jackie Brown), followed by Hong Kong chop suey (Kill Bill Vols. 1&2), 70’s sex-ploitation (Death-Proof), and WWII flicks (Inglourious Basterds). Now he’s finally gotten around to Spaghetti Westerns with Django Unchained.
But the paean is only one level of Tarantino’s work. He’s one of the most literary screenwriters today, with a wicked wit. His speeches flow off the tongues of his actors with twists and turns of phrase that are rapturous for the ear, a quality one normally finds on stage rather than on screen. And even as he’s winking his eye at previous movies, he creates his own vision that is both fresh and fascinating. (And violent – the patron of his movies is St. Peckinpah).
Django Unchained has all of this and then some. The movie tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who’s been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as punishment for their escape attempt. He’s “purchased” (I won’t spoil the scene) by a German bounty-hunter and former dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) because he can identify three fugitive brothers for whom Schultz is searching. Schultz finds slavery appalling and offers Django his freedom (plus $75.00) for his help tracking down the brothers
Schultz is an actor with life as his stage; he’ll play roles to get him close to his targets. He also prefers jobs where the fugitive is wanted dead or alive, since it’s easier transporting bodies rather than live prisoners. Django is thrown into Schultz’s lethal role playing before he knows what’s happening, but his cool head helps him learn fast.
Django helps Schultz apprehend the brothers in Tennessee, where they were working as overseers on the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Big Daddy takes exception to this and leads a proto-KKK raid against Schultz and Django. It goes off with a bang, but not in a good way for the raiders. While in Tennessee, they find that Broomhilda was sold to the infamous Candieland plantation. It’s owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who supplements his agricultural production with Mandingo fights. Rather than an immediate assault, Schultz invites Django to accompany him for a season of bounty hunting in the west, during which Django’s transformation from slave to gunslinger is completed. Then it’s time to head for Mississippi to save Broomhilda from Candieland.
Setting a western in the antebellum South – in effect, creating a south-western – is a twist that fuels the movie. Race and westerns have been mixed before, to great delight in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, but also in films from the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s such as 100 Rifles and Skin Game. One of the films that most influenced Tarantino in 1966’s Django which includes a fight between Mexican bandits and the KKK. (The star of that film, Franco Nero, has a cameo in Django Unchained where he asks Foxx if he knows how to spell Django.)
Foxx is excellent as always as Django, making the audience believe his transformation into avenging angel. Christoph Waltz is a natural with Tarantino’s dialogue, which is even more of an accomplishment since he’s working in his second language. Their first collaboration, Inglourious Basterds, brought Waltz a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. For the first time, DiCaprio has taken on a villain role, which he carries off with aplomb. The uber-heavy of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s main servant, Stephen. Jackson’s another actor who’s a perfect match for Tarantino’s crafting of words, as he showed in Pulp Fiction. Kerry Washington, in a sense, has a dual role, as both the proud but terrified slave and as Django’s idealized vision of his wife. By the end of the film, those roles have blended together.
Besides Don Johnson and Franco Nero, Tarantino has filled the film with appearances by actors from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, most of whom had appeared in western or semi-western films or TV shows during that time. You have Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), Tom Wopat (“Dukes of Hazard”), Don Stroud (Journey to Shiloh, “Ironside”), Bruce Dern (The Cowboys – where he killed John Wayne), Lee Horsley (“Matt Houston”) and Michael Parks (“Then Came Bronson”). Tarantino also has fun having Russ Tamblyn credited as “Son of A Gunfighter,” which was a movie Tamblyn made in 1966, and his daughter Amber Tamblyn credited as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” As usual, Tarantino also takes role, one that lets him make an explosive exit.
You don’t go to a Tarantino film for a history lesson, as Inglourious Basterds proved conclusively, and he does play fast and loose with some facets of history while getting others right. His Mandingo fighting is actually a nod at another movie that was scandalous in its day – Mandingo – but staged fights between blacks did occur. He mines historic scandal by having Jamie Foxx ride a horse, something no black was allowed to do in the South before the Civil War. (Foxx is a horseman himself, and used his own mounts in the film.) While it’s shocking for our ears today, the film also uses the N-word throughout. However, it’s always clearly tied in with the slave culture of that day as well as the prejudice that held on long after the Civil War.
Django Unchained is a good, effective, entertaining movie, though do be aware that it’s relentlessly violent. Up in Heaven, St. Peckinpah is smiling. (There is a brief tag after the credits, as if Tarantino remembered one last cliché of the western genre he had to wink at before closing his story.)