One of the greatest modern novelists reviews the latest film from one of the greatest modern directors...
Django Unchained is certain to tick all the boxes for Tarantino lovers: sharp dialogue, fast action, a high body count and a marvelously cool soundtrack. The film is largely a homage to the spaghetti western, and specifically the movies of Sam Peckinpah. It’s crazy, brutal fun, but in the aftermath of the recent massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown, people will inevitably question the wisdom of showing video-game frequency splatter-violence in such a graphic manner, in a nation where the sad, lonely, depressed and plain psychotic can obtain an assault rifle almost as easily as a cheeseburger.
Set two years before the start of the civil war, back in an era where the 2nd Amendment made some sort of sense, Django starts life as an unlikely buddy movie. An ex-dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), teams up with Jamie Foxx’s Django, a slave whom he frees, initially to serve his own ends. Waltz is on the hunt of three brothers, whom only Django can identify. The pair bond during this bloody quest, and subsequently become partners, as Django is apprenticed to Schultz in the art of bounty hunting. Of course, he’s a natural, and soon wants to pursue his own agenda. Thus he and Schultz travel to Mississippi intent on freeing free Django’s wife, the German speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She is captive on a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cruel southern villain, whose Francophille affectations are ruthlessly ridiculed. In a movie blessed with several great performances, this is a nice turn by DiCaprio, who works the role solidly, rather than trying to camp it up and scene steal.
The main problem I had with the film was Jamie Foxx as the lead. He’s a cool, charismatic actor, but often seemed either miscast or misdirected in this picture, being outshone by Christoph Waltz in the first half of the movie, and then by Samuel L. Jackson in the second. For me, Jackson steals the film with an absolutely superb performance as Stephen, Candie’s mercurial ‘house nigger’. Wisely, Jackson opts against playing Stephen as a cowering Uncle Tom, instead showing him as an aggressive, controlling, manipulative figure, complicit with Candie in the oppressive racism against his own people. Stephen’s shivering, jocular public persona is at odds with the measured and entitled private audiences he enjoys with his supposed master, Candie. These show him to be the power behind the throne. Indeed, it’s only when Fox is allowed to take on similar attributes, in a scam to win Candie’s trust and free his beloved Broomhilda, that he finally seizes command of the picture.
Waltz is also superb as the German bounty hunter. The early scene where he shoots the local sheriff dead, then stages the entire town and its Marshall, is a great piece of writing and acting. It’s recreated, with predictable diminishing returns, at a couple of other points in the film.
As with all Tarantino pictures, Django is a highly intelligent movie masquerading as dumb-ass escapism, and tackles truths that more worthy (and therefore less gifted) filmmakers shy away from. Stephen’s dark and complex persona, illustrating the notion that racism, like sexism, is fundamentally about economic and social inequality and the subsequent abuses of power that engenders, simply wouldn’t have worked in the hands of less compromising artists as Tarantino and Jackson. There is an ongoing highly queasy incestuous flirtation between Candie and his faded southern belle sister, mischievously named Lara Candie-Fitwilly. You laugh at this comic turn, yet are simultaneously rendered uneasy at the pain and iniquity behind it.
Back to the violence: it’s essentially cartoon stuff and I laughed loudly at most of it. I found the controlled, spare but up-close-and-personal brutality of Tarantino’s early films to be much more real and therefore more disturbing. In Britain, some depressed no-mark will watch this, wish they had a gun, know they can’t get one, and just go home and have a wank and forget all about it. In America, where gun violence is fetishized and ritualized, enshrined in the constitution by the second amendment, the picture is more problematic, and movies like this will be inevitably scapegoated by those unwilling to grasp the toxic nettle of gun control. And that would be a shame. After all, actors with toy guns don’t kill people, losers with real ones do.