Quentin Tarantino is a confident man – confident in his abilities as a film-maker, a scriptwriter, a salesman for his work, and the success of his place in cinema. It is what has allowed him to make relatively few films but at his own schedule, films that are overlong and indulgent but are nevertheless enjoyable, cine-literate mash-ups of exploitation genres. This means that he believes himself when he says that Django Unchained is a film that addresses slavery because of its historical accuracy despite the fact that the film is never going to be treated as a cinematic textbook – there are minor things such as sunglasses, types of guns and the use of dynamite at the time of the film, but the main issue is the total lack of evidence for ‘Mandingo fighting’, the gladiator-like unarmed fights between slaves (if you type ‘Django Unchained historical accuracy’ into Google, you’ll get lots of returns). That’s not a problem – Hitler didn’t die as he did in Inglourious Basterds – but Tarantino can’t have his cake and eat it too, something that Tarantino refuses to see in his self-worshipping blindness. It is this blindness that also prevents Tarantino the director from putting Tarantino the actor in his films – I thought Death Proof would see the last time he was a speaking character, but you should be warned that Tarantino has a cameo in this film, his doughy frame looking out of place on screen, accompanied by a horrible Australian accent. The only thing that redeems this is the manner of the character’s death (it’s not a spoiler warning to say that a LOT of people die in this movie).
This is a very long introduction to my assorted thoughts about Django Unchained, a film that I found more enjoyable than the frustrating Inglourious Basterds and the dull Death Proof, although it is still self-indulgently long (at 165 minutes), takes its sweet time to get to the good stuff and, despite having lots of talking, doesn’t have the same dialogue crackle of Tarantino’s earlier films. However, when it gets to the good stuff, it is deliriously, violently fun and makes the build-up almost worthwhile.
It is two years before the US Civil War (I like how a lot of people have been using ‘antebellum’, meaning pre-war, when describing the timeframe of the move – it’s a good word and it’s nice to see), and Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist who frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to locate three men with a bounty on them. They enter into an agreement where they will share the bounties during the winter, after which Schultz will help Django to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from seedy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), by pretending to be a bored rich man and his freed slaver looking to buy a slave from Candie for the Mandingo fights.
For most of the film, it is almost a buddy picture, as Schultz and Django are rarely apart, with Waltz doing his delightful delivery of Tarantino dialogue and Foxx not speaking as much but looking cool in the process. DiCaprio is good in his role, infusing subtlety within the more pantomime elements of his first villainous role, but he is upstaged by Samuel L Jackson, who plays the house slave at Candie’s plantation – he is wonderfully horrific as a slave who hates blacks as much as whites (he is furious with his master when told that Django will be staying in ‘the big house’, livid that a ‘nigger’ will be sullying his master’s home and requiring that they burn the sheets of the bed where he will sleep). Because this is a Tarantino film, there are also recognisable actors in small roles (Bruce Dern in a cameo, Don Johnson as a plantation owner, Jonah Hill as a member of a proto Ku Klux Klan, Walter Goggins as one of Candie’s workers) as well as James Remar playing two totally different roles in the film for no reason. It also has the homage/self-indulgence of a cameo from Franco Nero (‘with the friendly participation of Franco Nero’), the original Django, which feels very close to the current trend of Hollywood to include a cameo for the original star in the remake.
It is a very violent film – at one point, a slave is torn apart by dogs – and the squibs that explode when people are shot are huge, spitting out pints of blood and chunks of flesh for a single bullet. It’s entertaining violence, not ‘real’ violence, cinematic violence, performed to elicit the visceral response of justifiable revenge in the audience. Near the end, a woman gets shot with a revolver but she is blown away like she’s been hit by a cannon, and your response is supposed to be laughter, in that strange way that Tarantino is able to produce. The enjoyment from all the death that arrives at the end of the film is earned from the believability of Foxx in the lead role, and in his love for his wife – you want them to be together, you want him to get revenge on the people who have mistreated him personally and who have abused slaves for years because of their position in society. This is not a film about American history – this is a film about film history (as Tarantino’s films always are), a beautifully shot exploitation film that leaves you with a big smile on your face.