To say Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s crack at Blazing Saddles is the highest praise I can put upon it. In both cases, Mel Brooks and Tarantino in turn used the genre of the Western to push our faces in the collective poop that the United States took in the form of slavery and racism and say, “Look what you did!” And somehow, both manage to do this in an incredibly entertaining way. Talk about a magic trick.
The story of Django is more straightforward than most of his previous films, leaning much more towards Inglourious Basterds than his earlier work. Also like Basterds, it is something of an alternate history, full of anachronisms to play with the theme, though it does not fiddle with things on as grand a scale by any means. It mostly settles for things like naming characters “Von Shaft” or “Dr. King.” And unlike Basterds, there is only one sequence that comes across as Tarantino being in love with his own monologuing. And that particular speech is actually highly reminiscent of the infamous Dennis Hopper/Christopher Walken showdown from his True Romance script.
In a nutshell, Django enters into what would more strictly be referred to as an endentured servitude when Dr. King Schultz (in an astoundingly fun turn by Christoph Walz) purchases him in complicated fashion from a pair of thugish brothers and offers him freedom in exhange for helping him hunt down three wanted fugitives known as the Brittle Brothers.
Schultz, a bounty hunter emigrant from Germany then does something astounding to Django; he treats him like a human being. While Schultz certainly does not romanticize his place in society (comparing himself to slavers because he deals in the “flesh trade”) he operates on his own code of honor. He will not hesitate to kill a bounty from a distance or take out a threat at the first sign of trouble. But it is not until he is threatened that he takes action against those that do not have a bounty on their heads and he treats Django and the other blacks he comes in contact with if not as equals, then as lives that should be respected. Impressed by Django, Shultz takes him on as a novice partner and eventually offers to help him free his still enslaved wife.
The problem? Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio with all the subtlety of a plantation-owning freight train, now owns her.
In the process of all this, blood is spilled in much the same way I imagine it would be had the Black Knight sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail used shooting irons instead of swords. It sprays red and superfluous, coming close to the kind of overkill that would make Sam Raimi impressed.
There are several noteworthy performances in the film, but most of the attention seems to be focused on the wrong people, in my opinion. The first of the standouts has got to be Walz, who somehow manages to outdo his own star-making turn in Basterds with what is already looking to crawl onto my list of my favorite film characters of all time. Also showing off is Samuel L. Jackson in a bizarre role as Candie’s head slave. His head tufted with cottony white hair, he has made a place for himself at the top and he will do anything he has to in order to keep that place. As he acts the part of the ignorant servant, machinations are always churning behind his eyes in ways that make him at once hysterically funny and disgustingly vile. On the other end of the spectrum, Tarantino himself continues to pretend to be Hitchcock, this time hiding behind an awful Australian accent. It’s a thousand times better than M. Night’s ego boosts, though.
The structure of the film is a little weak with the real climax coming about three quarters of the way into the film, and the film feels a bit too long as a result. Granted, many of Tarantino’s films can feel that way. The character work and the humor make up for it though, as well as the fact that, for a Western by a director known for his visual accumen, it sometimes seems flat. One would expect Tarantino to get his John Ford on, but looking back I can only think of a handful of landscapes that are really given much attention, mostly in one montage sequence. Perhaps it was a concious decision to make the film a bit more spartan. Perhaps I’m remembering it wrong. But it was something that occured to me while watching it. It’s a bit of a moot point since you can’t really fault a Tarantino film for being a Tarantino film. Especially one as strong as Django Unchained.
(Four and a half out of five stars)