The style of this film’s opening credit sequence – the grow of the score, the glow of the font and the grain of the film stock – seems to say all that need be said about Django Unchained: it says that this isn’t just a Western that will tip its ten-gallon hat to the Spaghetti’s of old, it is the holiest of homages, that it’s going to go all the way in its reverent reproduction. Then a name flashes upon the screen in that scribbled technicolor sprawl – Quentin Tarantino – and you know almost as quickly that this first impression is wrong, that this will be a Western only in style, in ways that are only skin deep. The story begins proper and we see the first of the differences between this and any of the actual Western’s made in that era: the man with a name, a very meaningful name, the titular Django is an African-American and a slave. These three philosophies make up the swirl that we see on screen during Django: they mix, merge, contrast and compete like the bullets, dust and blood. The results occasionally electric but other-times impotent, the scientific method strangely lacking.
Django is an interesting name to use because, although it is a nameless Eastwood in a poncho that most modern viewers know Django is actually the most prolific character in the Spaghetti Western movement; one with a multitude of films to his name, near all of them containing his name in their title like this one does. The one constant throughout all of these films is the fact that Django is the name of a dead man, or one that may as well be – he is a man who has lost his family, who has lost his honour, who has lost his purpose, etc. During the Django remix that Quentin commissioned for the closing credits a quote is used from one of those past films that sums this all up: “Your life has little value compared to death.” That Tarantino gives this name to a slave is telling and a terrifically interesting twist on the trope, it speaks swiftly of the fact that here in the American south the life of a black man has little value compared to death.
Jamie Foxx does a perfect job playing that slave, that Django, giving one of if not the best performance in his career: he is small, subservient and simple in the film’s beginning, despite showing some subtle hints of being bravery and romanticism, but he loses all of that quiet and timidity by the end, dropping those slavish tendencies for the swagger of a gunslinger. Christoph Waltz plays his emancipator and partner Dr.King ( Yeah, the character that frees the slave is called Dr.King, there are a lot of blunt jokes like that in the film) who is written as the exact opposite kind of character, a snake-oil salesman with a swift gun arm: talkative, charismatic, verbose and bold. Watching the pair together as they begin their adventures is a joy, a jaunty buddy-cop odd-couple.
The hybridisation of the Western and blacksploitation genres suggested by Django’s arc is also present throughout the picture in other subtle, cinema-specific ways: the soundtrack, for example, which is so traditional during the white-controlled opening act, slowly introduces some soul to the Morricone-esque music during the mid-section, then explodes into rap once the power balance has shifted towards black. For the most part though the trade-craft on show here is far from subtle, as is oft Tarantino’s style. Quentin’s quirks seep through the Spaghetti-inspired shots; the way that he fetishisticly focuses on the filling of a beer, zooms to show an unacknowledged stepping in a cow-pat and lingers on other such procedural shots should seem bizarre but they are common when he is behind the camera. In front of it Tarantino even does a decent Aussie accent when he cameos alongside John Jarrat… for some reason.
The blacksploitation side of the story suffers the most from the man’s lack of subtlety, strange given just how over the top the genre is known to be. Though there are some times that the racial inequality is treated smartly – for instance, the fact that Dr.King’s method of business entails constant surrender, the pair constantly presenting themselves for judgement; their hands in the air, their lives in the hands of others. An act that means something very different for Django than it does the good Doctor – for the most part it is a sledgehammer not unlike the one that Calvin Candy wields. It’s blunt to the point of stepping over the line of ludicrous mockery and back into racist territory.
The constant uttering of the N-word, the characterization of the slaves – Samuel Jackson in blackface, playing an Uncle Tom the most egregious – and the abuse constantly strewn upon them are all obviously there to make us feel uncomfortable and disgusted but it is hard not to hear Tarantino having a little too much fun writing each of them, taking to much pleasure from pressing those buttons he isn’t allowed to in real life. The empowerment that is there to counter all this torture is also a little awkward; the small moments like Django getting to choose his own clothes or ride a horse into town are great but the wanton nature of his slaughter is a little much (I had hoped that the twist towards the end might have been Tarantino bucking expectations by having Django keep his hands relatively clean, but alas not); the Basterds killed Nazi’s, not every German that they saw and that is a distinction worth making.
Though it is arguably the point of the picture, for me this slaughter was also problematic in a second sense; the film was tangled up between being a gluttonously gory revenge picture ( the gelatinous sound effects used to show bullets hitting flesh are agh) and a traditional, thrilling Tarantino talkie. Both could have worked individually but when pieced together their pacing is warped and perverted because they operate in opposing ways, targeting opposing senses. We spend such a long time slowly amping up tension as the characters give speech after speech that the bloodthirsty may get bored before someone cracks and the blood begins to spill, a result that doesn’t quite feel right as the pay off to such intellectual irritations. The same structure worked far better in Basterds because the action there wasn’t quite as schlocky and thus the jump from the smartly woven scenes of speech to those of baudy bloodshed wasn’t quite so severe. This violence though is only symptomatic of the real issue, of a silliness that slowly devours the film whole.
Sergio Leone, John Ford and Clint Eastwood all treat the Western genre very seriously, for them is it a meaningful, maudlin affair. This story is entirely suitable for that kind of treatment – in fact i think it would have worked better with it than many of their own – but instead it is done for laughs. A true spaghetti western would also never have featured such a separated preamble: yes it makes sense to have the two characters establish a repor but once you’ve seen the story proper these early vignettes start to seem sort of inconsequential, their smaller arcings up and down making the major one feel a little less unique. In retrospect most of these seem structured around the jokes that cap them off, they are sketches as much as scenes. I’m not sure that these are two genres were really made to mesh; in fact with this as the only example available I’m forced to say that they may well be immiscible materials.
Overall though Tarantino still writes some of the best conflict scenes that cinema has ever seen, keeping you on a ball-hammers edge, and when he chooses to he can make a moment cool like no one else; some of the shots here far more effective in their badassery than those they are aping. If that’s all you want then Django will satisfy, it will be three hours well worth watching, but were they combined together into something greater than their sum this movie could have been among his masterpieces. I find the wasted potential in a film like True Romance painful but here I am wishing that Tarantino had maybe only written Django, or at least that his direction had been a little less unchained.