not in our stars, but in ourselves
I don’t think I can name a currently working director who excites me as much as Quentin Tarantino. That may betray me as a philistine and charlatan of the first order, as far as some of you are concerned, but I just don’t care. Django Unchained is a giddily wonderful film, from start to finish. So was Inglourious Basterds (2009), at least in my opinion, but Tarantino has outdone himself. It’s less than twelve hours since I’ve seen it, but I think Django just might be his best film.
Maybe. Don’t quote me on that just yet.
He’s taken his love of spaghetti westerns to the antebellum American South this time. When we begin, Django (Jamie Foxx) is trudging through Texas somewhere on a winter’s night – chained to four other slaves and covered with only a cheap blanket. The Speck brothers, odious rednecks, are supervising their travel. Through the woods, a strange carriage and stranger man come riding: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and current bounty hunter. He needs Django’s help to identify three men he needs to return to the U.S. justice system – whether dead or alive; he usually opts for dead – and he makes the Speck brothers an offer they can’t refuse in order to take Django with him. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship: conquering criminals and Klansmen alike, in sequences that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Blazing Saddles.
It is often uproariously funny. Some of you may think that it’s a sign of the sick, twisted times that the level of carnage in a Tarantino film is often played for laughs – but neither Mr. Tarantino nor I care.
Nevertheless, there is a heart to all the killing and conniving. Django was married to the beautiful Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). After an attempt to run away, they were sold to separate plantations. Django sees her everywhere – waving to him from a cotton field, rising up out of the mist.
Schultz, impressed by Django, is still more impressed that he’s met his very own Siegfried seeking to free his Brünnhilde from her ring of fire. They stage an elaborate con to find out where she is, how they can get to her, and some way to free her. Unfortunately for them, she’s at Candieland: a notorious plantation presided over by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio), the sort of man who makes the villains in Salò look like reference librarians.
There’s a lot of blood, and a lot of brutal violence that causes it. As I say, much of it is hilarious. Some of it is terrifying and sickening. Tarantino does actually know how to make the violence one or the other – a sign of skill, I’d say. The performances are uniformly excellent. Foxx may be an arrogant cuss in real life, but he is a GREAT actor, with charisma and gravitas in spades. This is probably the best role Di Caprio has had in years, maybe ever, and I think if he’s going to continue gunning for that Oscar, he’d better play more like it. We know you can cry, Leo. Now show us your sociopath.
And Waltz. Oh, Waltz. It’s my personal theory that Tarantino is in love with Waltz, and will hopefully continue to be the Sternberg to Waltz’s Dietrich, because what a goddamn talent. In some ways, Schultz hits the same notes as Hans Landa in Basterds. He’s just as debonair, just as urbane, just as well-read and -spoken in a variety of languages. But here, he’s a force for good: even though his job is about as dirty as it gets, and even though he executes his prey with more than a little gleeful pride, he appreciates a noble quest. He sizes Django up almost instantly, and doesn’t waste a moment in helping him to find Broomhilda – despite the immense risk and scant reward for himself. I mean, really. This part was written with love. Everyone else in the film is perfect in the roles in which they were cast, but Waltz once again steals the show with a part that would have been unplayable by anyone else.
There was a lot of hubbub about the frequency of the n-word in the script, and a fair amount of criticism about Django Unchained being yet another white-savior film. I’m not the right person to launch into a serious discussion of either of those topics, but I will address them briefly.
Spike Lee was outraged by the liberal use of a word that is, was, and will likely forever be completely offensive. Tarantino defended himself, saying that he wants audiences to be shocked and appalled by the racism of 1858, and perhaps to reflect on ways it’s still pervasive in Western culture. In other words: offending you for your own good. I’m not really sure that my $0.02 has any place here, but even though period-specific accuracy is never at the top of Tarantino’s list of priorities, I do think it’s pretty likely that the word would have been used as liberally during the time depicted as it is in the film. Perhaps even more so. Could he have written the script without using it? I don’t know. Maybe. I think the more shocking facet – because it’s just not the way anyone thinks anymore, at least not anyone who isn’t a result of generations of inbreeding in some sort of pathetic attempt to resuscitate the policies of the Third Reich – of the film’s depiction of racism is the way Candie and the like speak of slaves as if they were a separate and lesser species. I hope that sickened all of you; it did me. But I would never want it out of the script.
As for the white-savior allegation: sure, Schultz is the one who finds Django and helps him to regain Broomhilda. Schultz is the thinker and the talker. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 1858. You think a slave is just going to break free and go on his own rampage to find his wife? You think he can? Schultz teaches him how to shoot and how to read. He teaches him strategy. He doesn’t do that just out of a paternalistic sense of ownership. He does it because he wants a partner, and he knows Django will be a great one. Django ultimately unchains himself. Schultz helps him a lot, but Django is the Siegfried here, the real hero. Not Schultz.
Those considerations are still worthwhile, and I am more than willing for someone who actually knows about these things to tell me to shut up because I don’t know what I’m talking about. Overall, though, I think Django Unchained is a great movie. I would recommend it to most, if not to the squeamish. And I think that what makes it so great, so much better than Basterds or Pulp Fiction (1994) or whatever else, is that Tarantino has finally figured out how to stop relying only on references to cinema and pop culture to prove how clever he is. This is the first of his films I can think of (and I haven’t seen all of them, so cut me some slack if you vehemently disagree) where the characters matter more than his need to show off. He can do it. He can do it marvelously well. I hope he keeps it up.
But, you know, I’ll still watch, even if he doesn’t.