First, some history.
That's Django (1966), directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero as the titular Django. This was a film so wildly successful in Italy that other movies started adding "Django" to their titles just to get people in the seats, regardless of whether there was even a character by that name in the story. It's a mud-drenched revenge classic – another variation on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), standing alongside Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
If you're interested in Corbucci's Westerns, another beautiful film is The Great Silence (1968), starring Klaus Kinski. Hmmm. A German starring in an Italian Western. Interesting.
And that's Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967), directed by Giulio Questi and starring Tomas Milian as The Stranger. It's one of those films that added "Django" to the title, but one of the few to really be considered a spiritual sequel to Corbucci's classic. Together, Django and Django Kill are two of the most bloody, violent, and controversial of the Italian Westerns produced in the 60s.
That's the controversial Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder's frankly brilliant comedy series The Boondocks (2005-2010). This self-hating black man serves as a counterpoint to young Huey and Riley Freeman's Granddad, Robert Freeman.
Which brings us to this.
If you don't enjoy any of those source materials, whether for their action, drama, comedy, and/or controversy, then Django Unchained is not the film for you. I'm not one of those people who say Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino doesn't do anything original or steals all of his ideas from earlier better films. Those people really don't get what Tarantino is doing. Ever.
However, if you enjoy dark heroic fantasies about the brutal and unapologetic murder of evil people, go get your tickets now!
Django Unchained is the third in a series of films exploring and expanding upon pulp genre filmmaking from around the world. Just like Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds before it, Django is a film that breathes in the entire cinematic history of its combined genres, Blaxploitation and Italian Westerns, crafting a Revenge Film so beautiful that it elevates its pulp origins to art while still providing a satisfying escapist experience.
It's the Hero's Journey and meant not to give the audiences a realistic glimpse into life in the Antebellum South, but to create an extreme cinematic version of that world where all the colors are brighter, the violence is bloodier, and the emotions are pure electricity. This is the world where a hundred years later, the Basterds would kill Hitler, and sixty years or so after that you could carry a samurai sword on a plane. Mandingo Fighting probably wasn't real in our world, but in the Tarantino-verse, it's a natural outgrowth of the unbridled hyper-racism that permeates this South, while at the same time being a not-so-subtle reference to Ralph Ellison's famous short story "Battle Royale."
That's something that Spike Lee is missing in his criticism of the film (that he refuses to see).
This is a world where everything is turned up to eleven. The casual abundance of "nigger" in the dialogue serves an ideological purpose in the film. It's endemic to this world. The racism so thoroughly saturates this world that the sight of Django riding into town triggers exaggerated, Blazing Saddles levels of reaction. But it also triggers exaggerated inspirational looks in the slaves he rides past.
The world of the slave is closed off to such an extreme that even the hope of freedom is a myth, much less actual freedom. The mere sight of Django is enough to spark that imagination. And in those slaves who witness his actions, that spark will start a fire.
In the Tarantino-verse Antebellum South, I doubt that Candyland is the only plantation to be blown to bits by the time Django's ripples of influence have stopped expanding.
This is also a world where the ignorance and hate that breeds racism is exaggerated – again to Blazing Saddles levels. And Tarantino plays it masterfully. When we see the Klan attacking Dr. Schultz's dental wagon in the night, the first few cuts are horrifying; an army of masked riders with torches riding down upon them from out of the darkness.
But just before the attack reaches the wagon, a quick cut back to the Klan's preparation undermines the threat with a scene that matches anything from Blazing Saddles for pure hilarity. There's no way in hell that this Klan could ever get the drop on our heroes. Not to say they aren't threatening. In their ignorance they could be deadly, and we see later that if it weren't for the observations of Calvin Candie's house slave Stephen, Candie would be easily played by Doc and Django. And that's when the ignorance of the racist slavers in Tarantino's Antebellum South shows how dangerous it can be, unrestrained by morality or empathy.
Ignorance is dangerous. And willful ignorance is damn near sociopathic.
And sometimes you just have to burn it all down and start fresh if you want things to change for the better.
I'm going to just stop trying to rank Tarantino films in order of quality, because every single film is simply as good as it possibly could be – they each accomplish everything they set out to accomplish. There's not a single dud in his oeuvre. Some films might try to do more than others, some might be considered more mature than others, some might be considered slight by comparison, but every single one of them is a meticulously crafted work – a Hanzo Sword.
Django Unchained is no different.
And the performan
ces… Good god, y'all.
I could say that I was distracted by all of the cameos, but the distraction was always a little starburst of delight. Duke Boy Tom Wopat as U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum, Bruce Dern in flashback as Old Man Carrucan, M.C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, and James Remar as both Butch Pooch and Ace Speck. Each recognition made my smile a little wider. But the real joy bloomed seeing Don Johnson as Big Daddy, Walton Goggins as Billy Crash, Jonah Hill as Baghead #2, the always brilliant Michael Parks as the doomed LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. Employee, and Tom Savini as a nameless tracker alongside with the incomparable Zoe Bell as the mysterious masked tracker (neither of whom even speak, really, but are joys just the same).
But the best of all was seeing the original Django himself, Franco Nero, as the unnamed guest of Candie's who loses his slave in a bloody Mandingo Fight.
The heart of the film, though, is the dichotomy of good and evil that is the teacher/student relationships of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), contrasted with Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). We don't see the development of the Stephen/Candie relationship, but we get a very clear look at its dynamic. In public, Stephen is loud, cantankerous, and pushes the envelope of permissible behavior, as Jackson channels Uncle Ruckus so vigorously I expected there to be a joke about him having a glass eye; and Candie is the owner, master, and clearly in charge – although extremely lenient and affectionate in his relationship with his head house slave. Behind closed doors, however, we discover that Stephen is brutally efficient, smart, and coldly evil. He's also the brains behind Candie's success, playing a father-figure whose council is sought and acted upon without hesitation.
Stephen's guidance allows Candie's casual, effortless evil to flare up into that sociopathic ignorant hatred that can allow for just about anything in the name of control and domination.
It's a beautiful piece of scripting on Tarantino's part, and Jackson and DiCaprio invest the characters with complex and frightening gusto, moving quickly and effortlessly from comedy to horror without missing a beat.
This relationship serves as a foil to that of Doc Schultz and Django. Only with them, we get to see the development from the beginning, as Schultz picks Django out of the slave lineup on that dark winter night that serves as our opening scene. It's not as tense and outright brilliant as the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, but it's not trying to set up the same sort of mood. What it does accomplish is the establishment of just what kind of a man Schultz is, and in doing so plants the seeds of the man Django will grow into.
Schultz is a good man, but not an average man. He's a man with no qualms about murdering those he deems evil. So long as he has a warrant in his pocket, anyway. His ability to disassociate his emotions from the murderers he hunts makes him an efficient and successful bounty hunter in the Tarantino-verse. But he is not a hero. He's simply a killer of bad men in a world where that skill allows him to thrive and survive comfortably.
Django is also a good man, but not an average man. He's a man with no love, no future, and no hope for either. Until Schultz needs him. Then he is plucked from obscurity and put on the road to becoming a hero. But even with Django, we're not talking about a selfless hero of the people. Django is becoming a mythological hero – a fearless Siegfried searching for his Brunnhilde. And it is as myth and legend that his influence spreads, inspiring (we can assume from the way the camera lingers on the faces of those slaves he encounters) hope and dreams of freedom.
As such, Django becomes something more along the lines of a Horatio Alger inspiration than a rescuer of the weak and helpless. He is an "up by your bootstraps" sort of inspiration, and in the Tarantino-verse Antebellum South, we can't help but imagine this is what kicks off the Civil War more than anything else. His movement through the world ripples outward.
Ultimately, however, after Django has learned everything he needs from Schultz, it is something that Schultz learns from Django that is his undoing. The selfless act that is Django's long game – the rescue of his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) from Candie's ownership – combined with the repeated examples of the inhuman evils of slavery with which they are confronted, eventually take their toll. And it is in a suicidal act of moral good that Schultz discovers what happens to heroes in the Tarantino-verse. Selflessness in almost never rewarded in this world. Violence without some element of self-interest is almost always deadly – perhaps because without that sliver of selfishness, the hero has nothing personal to lose and death is an acceptable, justifiable reward.
Regardless, as with The Bride in Kill Bill, that selfish drive for revenge and/or to be reunited with loved ones, leads to a happy ending in a final crashing wave of blood and fire. That escapist energy being fed with the bodies of evil men and women is what draws the audience to its feet in the end – and justifies a moment of sheer fun as even Django's horse dances with glee. The explosion that destroys Candyland – and symbolically burns the racist slaving South to the ground – serves the same emotional purpose as did seeing Hitler's face bashed into a pulp in Inglorious Basterds. It's a righting of historical wrongs in a way that is viscerally satisfying – overwhelming societal restrictions about violence and "lowering" oneself to the brutish level of one's enemies. Some brutes understand nothing but the club.
Django Unchained is pure cinematic brilliance, lacking the pomposity that undermines other great works of film this year. This is serious filmmaking without a hint of condescension – filmmaking that revels in risk taking and doesn't mind veering from horror to comedy to rousing action – nailing each stylistic shift with confidence and never a hint of hesitation. And ultimately that is much more
difficult to accomplish than anything attempted by the rest of this year's crop of Oscar contenders.
This is what the movies were made for.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.