Welcome to the first of my Gut Reaction reports, guys. This will be my blanket term for when I give my thoughts about a film fairly soon after watching it – hopefully the same day, if not within the first few days. As such, these may not be quite as deep or complex as the regular Reel to Reel episodes, but it will also make for a way to record early thoughts and early reactions to a movie, which I’ve learned are not necessarily always the same as the opinion I ultimately settle on after having time to think it over and allow my thoughts to collect. Also, since I will often write about movies that I’ve seen in theaters, don’t expect a detailed synopsis. I can’t really write a beat-for-beat report the way I do for my other projects, people tend to get irritated at that guy typing on his laptop in a darkened theater. That said, you should expect spoilers in these pieces, since the goal is the same – to examine the ideas and tropes that make up fiction.
My first Gut Reaction report will be my thoughts on director Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Django Unchained. So again, warning, if you don’t want spoilers you should stop reading now.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino
Thoughts: Considering his well-documented preferences and sensibilities, it’s kind of surprising that it’s taken Quentin Tarantino this long to try his hand at a western. We’ve gotten lots of crime and revenge thrillers from him, we got his World War II epic (I still consider Inglourious Basterds to be his masterpiece), we’ve gotten Blaxploitation and, even though he didn’t direct it himself, we even got a vampire film out of him in From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. It took him nearly 20 years to attempt a western. Fortunately, it was worth the wait.
In Django Unchained we follow a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (the amazingly good Christoph Waltz), who rescues a slave named Django (Jaime Foxx) because he can help him identify the three brothers he has been hired to track down, dead or alive. Along the way he begins to feel a sense of responsibility and friendship for Django, ultimately promising to help him in an elaborate ruse to buy his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from her owner, the cruel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
This film has been pushed hard as a Jamie Foxx vehicle, as the film that’s going to garner him another Oscar, as a chance for cinema to right the wrongs of the pre-Civil War south and allow a former slave to get the sort of bloody revenge that Tarantino raised to an art form in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. I was surprised, therefore, when I watched the movie and realized that Django isn’t really the protagonist at all. Until the final act, the viewpoint and the main character arc all belong to Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz. Schultz finds Django, takes him in, finds himself changed somewhat by the relationship, and takes a rather bold anti-slavery stance to right the wrong done to Django and Hildy while at the same time trying to protect his own hide. (Waltz, incidentally, gives as great a performance as an anti-hero here as he did as the cold-blooded Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He sincerely deserves another Oscar nomination.)
In fact, the only thing that really marks this as Django’s story instead of Schultz’s is the fact that (again, last time, SPOILER WARNING) Schultz dies in what appears to be the climactic battle. And in fact, if it actually had been the climax, it would have still been a perfectly suitable and highly satisfying motion picture… Unless you judge satisfaction by the amount of bloody retribution handed out on the screen. Which Tarantino most certainly does. The fight that kills Waltz also kills our villain, DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, plus several other men before Django surrenders himself to save Hildy. The screen cuts to black and for a moment it seems the movie is over. But then it comes back and we see a sequence of events (a slightly overlong sequence at that) showing Django on the brink of torture, being given a reprieve and sent to work in a mine, outsmarting his transporters (including Tarantino himself sporting the worst Australian accent ever heard in a motion picture) and returning to kill everyone who’s still alive in yet another bloodbath. Satisfying if that’s what you’re there for, and for most of the viewers, we were. It’s Tarantino, we expect lots of gunfights, lots of clever dialogue, and more blood per wound than is technically probably possible for the human body to expel. There’s even a bit where Django gets off a nice shot to kill one of his tormentors that sends her hurtling in a direction that completely defies the laws of physics. As ridiculous as it looked, though, it still got applause in the movie theater, because people aren’t going to a Tarantino movie for strict realism. They’re going to view into the sort of hyper-violent alternate history that it has become clear he’s created through many of his movies.
That said, I think it’s important to note that Django doesn’t really come across as a hero in any sense of the word. Sure, he has a noble cause (saving his wife), and the people he kills are pretty much all bad… but he is driven by revenge pure and simple, not by the nobler motivations of a motion picture hero. Schultz is a bit better – he’s a bounty hunter, yes, but he shows a personal disgust at the slave trade in general and Calvin Candie in particular. He almost blows his cover at one point when he tries to intercede to save the life of a slave who is about to be killed for trying to escape. And what stops him from saving that slave? Django, willing to let another man die rather than risk Candie catching on that Schultz is playing a con game on him. Django, who is forced to play the role of a black slaver (something he specifically says is the “lowest of the low”), takes to the role a little too easily, even seeming to take some twisted pleasure out of berating the slaves in Candie’s jurisdiction. Once again, it’s Schultz who objects and tries to get Django to back off… and Django refuses.
I do think Tarantino deserves full marks for not going the obvious route many filmmakers would have taken with this film of “white=bad, black=good.” Real life is far more complex and so is this movie. We’ve got the vile Calvin Candie and the pre-KKK lynch mob led by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson in a small but very funny role), but we also have Dr. Schultz, who is so disgusted by the slaver that he takes a chance to kill Candie even when all he has to do to walk away safe is shake the man’s hand… he can’t do it. Broomhilde comes across as angelic, as near-perfect, but on the flipside we have Samuel L. Jackson’s Steven, a house slave who has very much sided with the Candie family against the rest of the people in bondage. He’s also entertaining, but also despicable. In the screening we attended, people actually were shouting for his death… but you could tell they were having a good time doing it.
Tarantino takes lot from the spaghetti westerns of his youth, but as always maintains the incredible level of violence that’s become his trademark. Django himself is thematically related to a series of other Django films from the time period – most of which were only loosely related to each other. The most unexpected influence comes from Schultz, who takes the name of Django’s wife – “Broomhilde” – as a sign. He tells Django (and by extension the audience) an abbreviated version of the Norse legend of Brunhilde and Siegfried, and from there it becomes very clear that Django Unchained is really a loose adaptation of this part of the Ring of the Nibelung, in Western drag. There’s no attempt to disguise it, and in fact, any attempt to do so would probably feel disingenuous.
It’s a good movie… a very good movie, in fact. It’s not like most westerns and it’s not really what I expected when I sat down to watch it. It very much has the distinct flavor of a Tarantino film, though, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking in the right place.