Django Unchained (2012)
With all the visual references to Sergio Leone in Inglourious Basterds, it was only a matter of time before Quentin Tarantino decided to go ahead and make a western. Of course, with his interest in '70s b-films, including the blaxploitation genre, it is no surprise that the two would be combined on his first foray into the 19th century.
It's not like this hasn't been attempted before. In fact, I've recently reviewed one starring Fred Williamson that came out during the height of the blaxploitation craze. The difference is, while that one was intended to be more in line with the typical Hollywood Western, Tarantino decided to tip his hat to the Italian movies of the 1960s, right down to lifting the name of his main character and theme song directly from the 1966 movie Django. There is even a cameo from that movie's star, Franco Nero.
I am not surprised he pulled it off, even if The Hateful Eight ended up being the better of his two movies that focus on this time period. In fact, Django Unchained is barely a western at all. Even though we start in Texas, most of the action happens in Tennessee and Mississippi. Still, a good portion of the first third focuses on the doings of bounty hunters, who have been romanticized in western movies for decades, and Django Unchained is definitely not an historical document despite the attempts to try to provide some reality in dress and weaponry.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave sold cheap at auction by his former master (Bruce Dern) after Django and his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) attempt to run away from the plantation. She herself is sold separately as punishment. Needing someone who can point out bounties that he is after, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) purchases Django with the promise that he will be a free man once the job is done. Schultz remains true to his word, but also agrees that, once spring comes, he will help Django track down Broomhilda. Meanwhile Django learns the art of bounty hunting.
The search leads them to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio), who specializes in "mandingo fights," which means often buying strong male slaves to fight to the death, in addition to his house staff and those working on his plantation. Schultz and Django cook up a plan to buy Broomhilda from Candie, but Candie's head servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) has his suspicions, putting the lives of the Broomhilda and the bounty hunters in danger.
There were hints in both Kill Bill movies as well as Death Proof that Tarantino had improved tremendously as a director. He always had a certain style, and there is a reason his first two films are now classics, but most of the scenes took place inside clubs, houses and cars. By Inglourious Basterds it was no longer as claustrophobic, with some amazing landscape shots. The early scenes, particularly the ones happening in winter, were largely filmed in Wyoming, and he takes advantage of the natural scenery in every way he can. Even when it gets back to the South, the plantations and the mansions are filmed with extreme long shots and a heavy use of perspective. Django Unchained was the most expensive movie Tarantino had made up to this point and it's obvious the money wasn't wasted.
The other thing I appreciate is that, while this is definitely influenced by both Sergio Leone and blaxploitation films, it doesn't feel like it is sewn together from other artists' work. As good as the first Kill Bill is my problem is that it more than wears its influences; while he may have thought he was referencing all these old movies the way it was done felt like he was outright stealing pieces of them to make his own film. Neither Reservoir Dogs nor Pulp Fiction felt like this, and unfortunately it was a trend that spanned Jackie Brown through Inglourious Basterds. This time around it felt like something original.
Another Tarantinoism that is missing are large scenes of supposedly clever dialogue. It worked early on since it helped establish characters, which was important when budgets didn't permit large action sequences. It became tedious later on, particularly in the second Kill Bill film, and felt like it was often included because it was expected. That doesn't mean that his knack for dialogue isn't there, but conversations are kept short enough to be effective, and often results in a satisfying payoff.
Where the movie fails is in a place that even his worst movies usually succeed: the soundtrack. It's fine to use the theme from the original Django, as it fits the kind of movie he is trying to make, and the sequence using Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" is quite effective. Unfortunately many of his other modern musical choices do nothing but loudly intrude upon the action. True, Ennio Morricone's music doesn't necessarily sound like music they would have played in the old west, but it contains a certain dramatic weight that adds to the action and the characters, where adding in modern hip-hop just seems like an old man trying to be cool and emphasize that he has black friends.
Jamie Foxx is perfect as Django, from his "I've seen things" stare to his sudden bouts of tenderness and control. Foxx has always been a great actor in pretty much anything he does, but for most of the film, Django plays a role similar to Mad Max. He's the focal point, but he's not the one that carries the action. Often Schultz is, and Christoph Waltz plays him as a good man forced to do bad things to make a living. Foxx gets his chance to shine both dramatically and in the action portion of the film, but his character, and Broomhilda, are often treated more like folk heroes. Kerry Washington doesn't get a whole lot to do, but she is great in the few scenes that focus directly on her. On the bad guy side, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a sadistic pseudo-intellectual quite well, although Samuel L. Jackson almost upstages him as the real power on the plantation.
Still, what we have here was a movie meant to be enjoyed as simply a fun film. The only real social message it has is that racism and slavery are bad, and it's a pretty sure bet the majority of the audience came in with that attitude and left with it. It is definitely nice to see Quentin Tarantino once again having fun instead of trying to be the artiste everyone seems to think he should be, and without him relying too much on some of his usual habits. This time around he is applying his early fire to the technical skills he's acquired, and that definitely carried over into the next, more substantial film.
Django Unchained (2012)
Time: 165 minutes
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Quentin Tarantino