After watching Jamie Foxx boldly strut on a chestnut mare with circular-lensed shades through the sunny Mississippi countryside, I find it almost impossible to imagine Wil Smith doing the same without bringing the bulk of Quentin Tarantino’s Western/Southern enterprise crashing down. There is a steely gravitas to Foxx (see also Jarhead, Miami Vice) that works when he evolves to cowboy super-shooter (and instrument of revenge), but more importantly, there is a generous yet unassuming vulnerability when he plays off Christoph Waltz that makes the picture decidedly human amongst all the heroic bloodshed, sweaty mandingo wrestling, horse murder, and flowery language. The look and tone of the film is as grab bag as the range of its cinematic influences. Moments that recall John Ford’s Monument Valley grandeur and snowy echoes of Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence sit uneasily against the farcical parody of Birth of A Nation‘s ride of the Klan (feat. Jonah Hill!) or a man being violently torn apart by dogs. Django Unchained may feel like a 10 hour HBO miniseries crushed down to just under 3 hours, but it is a cornucopia of delights and it does what its director does best. That is to say, let great actors have memorable scenes of dialogue (or silence) together, whilst setting the non-acting scenes to exceptionally curated music.
Other than the extreme, and often cartoony, violence in the film and a cameo from original star, Franco Nero, Django Unchained has little to do with the original Django, but rather acts as the best of the unofficial sequels. A living, breathing movie environment for Tarantino to bring his revenge fantasy on American slavery into the conversation in the same way he did for Jews and Hilter in Inglorious Basterds. There is also the matter of bounty hunting – the profession that Django adopts from former German dentist Dr. King Shultz. Played in a decidedly Landa-esque manner (brimming with enthusiasm and linguistic backflips) by Christoph Waltz, Shultz makes his entrence driving a wagon capped with a plaster tooth on a spring, comically swaying. But Shultz has long swapped pulling rotten teeth out of the mouths of men for plugging rotten men with bullets. As much as Django Unchained has race and slavery on its mind, it spares no small amount fair share of screen time on state sponsored murder. It even goes so far as to equate physically, if not morally, the act of bounty hunting with slavery. Both are flesh trades, both are considered legal means of earning a living sanctioned by the state. Django Unchained would make a curious double bill with Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay, particularly in the second half of the film when all the screen time is spent inside plantation estates and manor houses where everyone has the word ‘nigger’ on the tip of their tongue. You will not find two more opposite films on the same subject, however both have complicated notions of honour and hubris.
American cinema has always been a celebration of violence in one form or another from 1932 Scarface to George Romero’s ‘Dead’ Trilogy up to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and the Europeans – the Italians in particular – were always appropriating US genres to their own violent excesses. While Tarantino has almost always played in similar arenas, he’s managed to transcend pure genre by injecting an (often surprising) dose of humanist, feminist, or morally righteous honesty alongside his quest for cinematic ‘cool.’ In Pulp Fiction it was most obvious in the dynamic between cool-Vincent and introspective-Jules. Tarantino’s films tend to be better than the things he is often accused of aping or outright stealing. Yes, I include Death Proof and Kill Bill in this point.
A snowman used for target practice, arterial spray on a white horse upon a the perfect sniper shot in the dark, a well dressed and manicured Leonardo Di Caprio sporting coal-black teeth, Samuel L. Jackson’s bleached curls – one could comb through the film for use of colour and imagery which comment on race and moral clarity. Perhaps this is the modern equivalent of black hats and white hats, and the players in Django Unchained, while anti-heroes, have a clarity as to whether they are good or bad on the terms of the film’s notion of fantasy. It is all so well integrated into the films own sense of cinema, storytelling and all out entertainment that it puts other popular ‘big-ticket’ entertainers James Cameron and Peter Jackson, who recently seem far more focused on technology over telling a surprising story with memorable characters and great scenes, to shame. Who is making cinema in 2012? Quentin Tarantino. That strut at the end of the film, doing high-falutin’ donuts on horseback. Well, that’s as much the filmmaker as the character.