I contend that it’s impossible to discuss a movie by Quentin Tarantino without referencing his body of work as a whole. Consider his latest offering, Django Unchained, which tells of a former slave (Jamie Foxx) in the late eighteen-fifties infiltrating a southern plantation to liberate his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The film stands on its own as a quirky Western about a particularly shameful chapter in American history, but we draw further meaning, for better or for worse, from the knowledge that its writer-director spent his entire career since Reservoir Dogs (1992) paying tribute to the cult classics of his youth.
The movie starts with a figurative bang, by which I mean a musical montage in the desert with those rapid zooms so common in spaghetti Westerns, followed by a dynamite sequence in which an overeducated German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) tries to purchase our hero from two backward slave runners. Like the best scenes in either volume of Kill Bill (2003), their exchange could serve as a self-contained play, and whether you’ll appreciate Django Unchained depends entirely on how you feel about these opening fifteen minutes. I, for one, love the way they establish the three dynamics driving the story: Schultz’ clever humanism, Django’s calculated defiance, and the barbaric American practice that stands in their way.
It occurs to me that the most interesting cowboys in cinema tend to be sidekicks. This proves as true of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993) as it does of Han Solo in Star Wars (1976). Schultz follows suit, owing in large part to Christoph Waltz’ captivating performance as a jovial idealist who simply cannot abide that a man be treated as anything less than a man. The irony of his having portrayed a Nazi in Inglorious Basterds (2009) dawns on us all, especially when a villain uses eugenics to justify his treatment of black people. However, the award-wining thespian plays the role with so much wit and panache that every scene in which he appears had me on the edge of my seat, hoping desperately he’d make it to the end credits. That’s never a guarantee in Tarantino joints.
In a refreshing twist, Schultz doesn’t serve as our point-of-view character but as a devoted mentor, a “magical whitey” if you will, to the true star of the movie, you know, the guy whose name is plastered on the poster. Whereas most Hollywood films that deal with racism invite us to see the world through the eyes of an enlightened white person (think 2009’s The Blind Side or 2011’s The Help), Django Unchained, much like Jackie Brown (1997), trusts its audience to understand and relate to its black protagonist. Wisely, Jamie Foxx plays our hero as a rooster still coming into his own, hinting at a larger-than-life nature but never fully embodying it until the final act.
Django’s staunch resolve provides our through line as he and his companion con their way onto the estate of slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and witness a full gamut of recorded crimes against humanity: murder, torture, forced prostitution, Mandingo fighting (a reference to the 1975 grindhouse flick)… We even get an embodiment of the Uncle Tom stereotype (Samuel L. Jackson), whom the film portrays as a traitor to his race. The absurdity of subjugating one class of people in this manner and treating the other with southern hospitality is emphasised by our hero’s odd status as a free black man. Take, for example, Big Daddy’s (Don Johnson) fluster when asked, “You want me to treat him like a white man?” Better yet, keep an eye out for Schultz’ amused grin.
For all these subtle touches, the movie still ends with a literal bang, by which I mean a great big perfunctory explosion preceded by a shootout that forgoes any sense of tension in favour of making the hero look cool. It doesn’t help that he’s got to interact with Broomhilda, who turns out a shadow of a character, a vapid damsel in distress. Some will argue these unfortunate traits part of the exploitation genre to which Tarantino pays homage; I suspect he just has trouble bringing his stories to a close. Pulp Fiction (1994) bypassed the issue by cleverly folding onto itself. By comparison, the wrap-up to Django Unchained feels downright puerile. Yes, we want the bad guys to pay for their crimes and the good guys to win, but their victory has to be earned.
I suppose I might have been more forgiving of the final act if we hadn’t seen similar endings from the very same creator. In fact, part of what makes Django Unchained so difficult to discuss as a stand-alone piece lies in its director’s incontrovertible authorial voice. Consider how Django and Schultz’ elaborate con game capitalises on his unique ability to generate tension from small talk. This is by far the most verbose Western I’ve ever experienced, and I wouldn’t have settled for any less. Don’t get me wrong. I desperately want Tarantino to broaden his range at this point, but he could do worse than to use his offbeat aesthetic to expose issues of race and cultural hypocrisy in a way that’s never been done before.