Ever since writer-director Quentin Tarantino shot to fame with “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “Pulp Fiction” (1993), fans have eagerly awaited his films. The reason Tarantino stands out from the rest is because of his talent to continuously push the boundaries of the film medium in his own distinctive way. Considering his two decades of filmmaking experience, it is not difficult to anticipate what Tarantino might have in store for his audience in his latest film, 2012’s “Django Unchained.” From the opening shot, it is obvious Tarantino has reinvented himself yet again. This time around, he dabbles with the spaghetti-Western action flick, and the results are superb. “Django Unchained” mixes satire, comedy, action, drama, and violence with the most important of Tarantino’s filmmaking characteristics, his handiness to introduce “unexpected” elements into the narrative.
Set in the pre-Civil War era, the film’s opening, warm-looking shot representing a barren mountainous region sets the film’s tone. In these opening moments, we are introduced to a bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who later buys a black slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). Dr. Schultz is on the trail of hunting down the Brittle gang, and Django recognizes the Brittle brothers. After they eliminate the Brittle gang, the plot focuses on recovering Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a white slave owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django devise a clever plan to buy Broomhilda from Calvin.
“Django Unchained” is grand and spectacular in every way. For the first time, Tarantino heavily uses natural landscapes to fill the visual aspect of the film. Having said this, he is not interested in showing us the wild Southern landscape that existed at the time. Nor does he want us to appreciate the natural beauty of wondrous landscapes. Through his camera work, he still places emphasis on his characters, and eventually the scenery is just a form of background. Just as in his other flicks, the background music becomes an important part of the film, which is evident from the opening scene, in which the tone of the music changes rapidly, signifying the tempo of the scene and building tension; the music is used with remarkable effectiveness in many scenes.
At some level “Django Unchained” can be seen as a companion piece to “Inglorious Basterds,” especially in the manner in which Tarantino stages some of the scenes. The introduction of the bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, draws similarity to the infamous Jew hunter, Hans Landa, in “Inglorious Basterds.” In addition, thematically, both films represent a slice of history; and then there is a shoot-‘em-up climax, soaked with blood and gore in both the films. With its revenge theme, “Django Unchained” suitably fits as another revenge-themed entry in Tarantino’s filmography, although with a different historical setting this time. Tarantino deals with the slavery issue head-on, something many filmmakers have shied away. Apart from the monumental TV miniseries “Roots,” there are not many films that present slavery from the perspective of slaves. That said, “Django Unchained” should not be watched for a history lesson on slavery. In fact, there is very little to learn about slavery and the condition of slaves. Nonetheless, Tarantino’s script blends together a historical timeline and a fantasized revenge tale, sometimes presenting us with relevant historical events, while in other instances stylizing fiction over realistic facts.
The first-half lays the groundwork for things to come in the film’s final act. There is on-screen drama present throughout, and the smartly woven dialogue is tense, entertaining, and absurd, eventually leading to broader action and a final bloodbath. Even though there are moments of short-lived violence in the first half, Tarantino manages to relax us with the drama and with the manner he unfolds the plot. Just when we are relaxed and comfortable, Tarantino unleashes outlandish, full-scale violence, with an ever-increasing body count and ruptured bodies lying all over the place. Surely, heads will roll, eyes will close, and one will squirm looking at the dead bodies, but the bloody fright manufactured in the climax is also utterly laughable and cartoonish. Nonetheless, while doing this, there are countless references to other genres used by Tarantino, starting with the samurai (“The Sword of Doom,” “Sukiyaki Western Django”) and Western (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a time in America,” “Django”) genres that thematically propel the film. In addition, by using a black lead character, Tarantino also juxtaposes the Blaxploitation genre, in the process knitting together a wide range of genres with dexterity.
A major characteristic in Tarantino’s films is the vivid nature of his bringing each character to life. Whether it is Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction” or Hans Landa and Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” Tarantino’s characters remain relatively calm in the midst of the prevailing tension arising from the absurdity of their situations. Due to this aspect, the characters stand out, absorbing us with their performances. The same thing is applicable for the pairing of Dr. Schultz and Django, as they maintain their cool temperament even when the cards are stacked against them. Schultz talks in a manner giving us the impression he is accustomed to being listened to. Django, for the most part, listens and follows what Schultz says. Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, is the pulse of the movie, in spite of his not playing the lead character. His action pushes the plot forward, and when he talks he conveys an unsettling feeling in all of his scenes. It is as if he knows how everything will play out; we are amazed how smoothly Schultz persuades people around him. In terms of performances, Waltz is matchless, a canny and witty character even a swaggering DiCaprio cannot achieve. Foxx’s character, being the lead, exhibits anger, frustration, and patience, making him an indestructible force. He gradually transforms from being just a slave to a sharp-skilled bounty hunter. There are emotional scenes when Django begs for mercy and his soul remains strong, even when his perpetrators ruthlessly beat him. Mostly, Waltz and Foxx are entertaining and perfect in their roles.
“Django Unchained” is a long, enjoyable ride that feels stretched in the last act. Tarantino indulges in long segments of dialogue that are mostly masterful and smart but at times feel as though he is deliberately trying to be clever. Of course, the extended verbal exchanges lead to grand, enthralling action segments. For me, a favorite moment comes when Schultz talks about the three musketeers created by Alexander Dumas, whose father, Thomas-Alexander Dumas, was of a mixed race born to a Haitian slave mother. Thomas-Alexander Dumas rose through the ranks to become the highest-serving black general in the French army. Surely, this segment indirectly implies Django’s rise as a black, revenge-seeking slave against the white plantation owners who controlled the lives of black slaves. Schultz’s statement perfectly sets the outcome in the end.
Tarantino’s latest effort is maddening and bloody violent, yet he manages to inject moments of comedy and laughter into it, making the violence almost a secondary aspect. He pays homage to multiple genres, but at the same time carves out his own identity as an astute filmmaker, rediscovering himself in many ways. In the end, “Django Unchained” is a satisfying, splendid effort that is worth watching.