The advent of a new Quentin Tarantino film was never exactly going to be a muted affair. Amid the inevitable cloud of controversy, debate and drama that we’ve come to expect and love when the 49 year old Knoxville-ite releases a film, ‘Django Unchained’ has already been the biggest Christmas Day box office hit stateside taking a cool $15 million on its first day, and if the critical reception is anything to go by it’s looking like it’ll perform just as well this side of the pond. For his tenth film as director, he has chosen to take the title line from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western – ‘Django’ – about a gunslinger who drags a coffin behind him with a huge gatling gun under the lid. Whilst the film remains true to the period it represents, it is unmistakably a Tarantino. The only thing you’ll find relating vaguely to Italian pasta dishes in this film is the sheer volume of red sauce that is flung across the screen in gloriously true Tarantino ultra-violence style.
Over six hundred Spaghetti Westerns were made between 1960 and 1980, but don’t let the potentially over-done nature of this genre impact how you watch Django Unchained. ‘Tarantino’ is a brand that is so well developed, so well established that the brand itself has arguably superseded the art form, and whilst this film is part of Tarantino’s ‘of the real world’ set of films, the consistency of style and caricatured characterisation is evident from the outset. Christopher Waltz plays Dr. King Shultz, a highly self-controlled, accurate and professional bounty hunter. He needs Django – played by Jamie Foxx – to help him track down a particular set of brothers who have a large bounty on their head, so they form a mutually beneficial partnership. In return for Django’s assistance, Shultz sets out to help Django track down a notorious cotton plantation owner, Monsieur Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has enslaved Django’s long lost wife Broomhilda.
It’s no surprise to see Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz back in the frame – he is so perfectly cast as Dr. Shultz that Tarantino surely must have written that part specifically for him. He conducts and orchestrates the entire storyline, whilst simultaneously playing an all important moral compass role with regards to the slavery issue – a role that some of Tarantino’s critics seem to have conveniently glossed over. The violence our bounty-hunting pair instigate is brutal, yes, but it’s reasoned by the context of the film’s time period, and the fact their victims are wanted criminals. The violence plantation owner Candie instigates however is brutal and horribly self-gratifying. Along with his highly strung but always eventually subservient man-in-waiting Stephen (played by Samuel L Jackson), he very literally throws disobedient slaves to the dogs, and insists slaves fight each other to a horrible death, purely for his entertainment. The divide in the film between this kind of violence and the classic Tarantino ultra-violence is cut and dry – the former smacks of authentic shame, whereas the latter is boasted and aestheticized to such an extent that you’ll probably need to wipe some blood splatters off your cheek by the end of the film.
The uncomfortable awfulness of Leo’s character must not distract from how brilliantly he plays the twisted, un-remorseful Candie. The film really speeds up when they reach Candie’s pad and commence the negotiations – Leo gives us a scene that’s worth price of the cinema ticket on its own, made famous by the fact that he cuts his hand badly during a take, but Leo being Leo – he improvised through it, picking glass pieces out and bleeding everywhere and using it to heighten the scene’s tension and emotion. Brilliant.
Foxx’s performance is solid, but probably won’t catch the attention of awards judging panels. He never seems to stray from the same demeanour of super cool, unruffled focus. Given the three heavy weights he’s acting alongside, you could arguably say that Foxx never really stood a chance of presenting a standout, award worthy lead performance. You could also consider the argument that the original Django character from the 1960s was similarly softly-spoken to Foxx, and if Tarantino wants to borrow from such an iconic franchise he needs to stay true to some aspects, especially given he chose to leave Django’s famous gating gun locked up. The final scene of the film sees a thick layer of Tarantino style ‘spunkiness’ applied to Foxx’s character, which is brilliant, but does cause immediate comparisons to the rest of the film.
Indeed, Corbucci’s Django was banned from being shown in Britain for nearly three decades, partly due to an explicit scene, and one that Tarantino subsequently referenced in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in which the main villain chops off the ear of a turncoat who has displeased him. The ultra-violence in Django Unchained culminates into one long, wild, cartoon-esque shoot out where bullets kersplat into stomachs, boing off knee caps and a few heads explode here and there (obviously). Violence aside, it’s the use of the ‘N-word’ that’s been the main topic of the controversy surrounding Django Unchained. Despite telling Jamie Foxx at the BET Awards that he wouldn’t speak out against the film, Spike Lee has very publicly stated that he shall not be watching Django Unchained, saying it is disrespectful towards his ancestors. He did the same with Tarantino’s ‘grown up’ film ‘Jackie Brown’, which used the word 38 times, stating “I’m not against the word, and I used it myself, but not excessively. And some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made – an honorary Black man?” Samuel L Jackson responded to this criticism with a slam dunk, stating that ‘this film is a wonderful homage to Black exploitation films. This is a good film. Spike Lee has not made one of those for a while”.
Lee also made his thoughts clear on Django Unchained via the medium of Twitter: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Wll Honour Them”. Comedian Sarah Silverman has also weighed in on the debate, telling website TMZ: “Doesn’t it take place during slavery? Wouldn’t it be odd if they didn’t have that horrific word it it? Spike Lee’s got a lot of mishegas with a lot of art….you can’t really tell art what to do”. Of course opinion will no doubt polarise on this point, and quite rightly so – but you can’t deny that Tarantino is a director who will never sit down quietly when his work and integrity is questioned. His response to Lee’s criticism on Jackie Brown was of course delivered with a huge wallop of conviction, and he’s actually refused to hit back at Lee’s latest round of criticism, saying he won’t ‘waste his time’:
“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are, all right? And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist. That is the heart of racism, all right. And I do not accept that….That is how a segment of the black community that lives in Compton, lives in Inglewood, where Jackie Brown takes places, that lives in Carson, that is how they talk. I’m telling the truth. It would not be questioned if I was black, and I resent the question because I’m white. I have the right to tell the truth. I do not have the right to lie” (taken from an interview with charlierose.com)
In a recent interview with Little White Lies, Tarantino commented: ‘You know I’ve got a really nice house. And every once in a while I walk around that nice house and I think ‘wow, my imagination bought this’. Turning 50 in a few months and with 20 years of film making under his belt, it’s pretty amazing he remains so humble. Without the imagination of this enfant terrible of cinema, the film industry would be so much worse off. Django Unchained sees Tarantino playing one-upmanship with the only person capable of achieving a film like this – himself.
Spike Lee, you’re missing out.
5 out of 5
Hilarious, unashamedly violent (obviously) and addictively enjoyable. Tarantino at his best.
Out in UK on January 18.
Awards noms: BAFTA – Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Waltz).
Image: thanks to Sony.