The refrain of the Western can be felt throughout much of the work of American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. His rambunctious debut, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs reclaimed the Mexican standoff for the Slacker generation, while it was actually the release of Kill Bill Vol. 2 that saw a minor resurgence in the popularity of the original Sergio Corbucci Django around ten years ago, but Django Unchained marks the director’s first surface Western. In tackling the genre himself Tarantino looks to a number of influences, with his own take on the oldest American film genre falling somewhere between Spaghetti Westerns of Corbucci and Sergio Leone and the action-Westerns of Don Siegel, in a film that fuses everything from Germanic folklore and Die Nibelungen to concepts of an American Jesus, borne out of the ashes of the nations great shame, the slave trade.
Django Unchained concerns the story of the titular Django, a slave, and his attempts to be reunited with his wife. As the film opens we are introduced to Jamie Foxx’s Django as he marches across the wilds of the US as a part of a slave chain gang being transported to their new owner’s plantation. As Tarantino’s gaze settles on the scenario at hand it zones in on the character of Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter posing as a dentist who buys the freedom of Django with a view to use the man’s knowledge of a group of former slave drivers to bring in a major bounty. The introduction of Schultz, a curious figure portrayed with the right balance of quirk and contrivance by Christoph Waltz, sets the off-kilter tone of the movie from the off. An opening act of violence is ripped straight from the script-book of Looney Tunes, with it’s OTT aesthetics matched by King’s odd demeanour, manifested in these early scenes by a stickler’s respect for bureaucracy. Waltz’s King is a positive imprint of the character he played to Academy Award winning effect for Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, exuding a warmth and compassion that one might not ever expected the director capable of. Under no illusions as to the similarities between the slave trade and the bounty industry (both are, of course, variations on “Flesh For Cash”), King suggests that the pair team-up to find Django’s wife, Broomhilda.
This prominence of dual protagonists leads to the must unlikely of scenarios, with Django Unchained proving to be quite the touching buddy picture. The use of the song ‘I Got A Name’, from American singer-songwriter Jim Croce to score a montage in which the two make their way across a Wintery scenario serves to further this tone further, recalling the use of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. Theirs is essentially a variation on the father/son relationship with the older King showing Django the ways of his profession, alongside teaching him to read via the wanted posters that litter the world in which they inhabit. While Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid may be the obvious reference point, it is perhaps the other Paul Newman and Robert Redford collaboration The Sting that Django Unchained most closely resembles. Each on-screen situation is played out as a character piece, with the intention being to convince a stooge or manipulate events to the skewing of King and Django; they’re essentially con-men. This aspect of a discourse on performance also fits in to the wider theoretical narrative of Tarantino’s post-millennial work, acting as a deconstruction of the very medium of cinema.
While Tarantino is no stranger to controversy, by employing the subject of slavery as the backdrop to Django Unchained the director is encroaching on fairly hallowed ground. Such a focus of attention cannot help but provoke passions and debate in equal measure, with the discourse that the film has inspired being highly fraught. The sight of a dwindling chain of slaves opens the film, while before we’re treated to the most extreme example of an “Uncle Tom” figure we go via such barbaric episodes as that of the Mandingo, a semi-fictional “sport” which saw slave pitted against slave in a fight to the death.While the atrocities on display disgust, it’s actually refreshing to see it seen it tackled in this way. It’s also a great compliment to say that the sadness of the situation is not softened by the trademark inevitability of comeuppance that so often comes with the director’s work. In one visually arresting sequence Tarantino tackles the Ku Klux Klan head on, having reserved the most striking scathe of his career for a comedy sequence that displays the group as the confused band of idiots that they truly are.
While Tarantino’s film lacks the naturalistic visual code of a Peckinpah or an Altman, this actually makes for one of the films key defining characteristics. Shot by Tarantino’s regular lensmen, the incomparable Robbie Richardson, Django Unchained merges the murky with the epic, the grand vistas of the American South cut against the most extreme squib work seen in a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in some time. The self-referential Tarantino that has always taken centre stage is also there, albeit in a more subdued manner than previously seen. Pop culture references underline the project, from the presence of a pair of Miami Vice cops split thru time, to a score that features Rick Ross and John Legend alongside the typically Tarantino likes of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov, although crucially this self-knowing never takes precedence over the plot at hand. It fits the void left behind by the contemporary-skewing likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales and McCabe & Mrs Miller, or Sam Pekinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, in the way that each channeled the contemporary discourse of the 1970s, subjects such as Vietnam and what to do in the wake of the Summer Of Love, while each of those films (but especially the latter) understood the value of pop culture. Tarantino throwing out references to The Great Silence or Two Mules For Sister Sara is the sort of thing that Clint Eastwood was doing in subverting his own on-screen persona in The Outlaw Josey Wales (and later, to far more explicit lengths in Unforgiven), while we need look no further for a piece of contemporary pop culture casting than that of Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid.
Throughout the course of his career, but in his most recent two films especially, Quentin Tarantino has begun to weave a very interesting skewed history of the world. While there’s nothing that quite lives up to the gamechanging excesses of Inglourious Basterds successful mission to kill Adolf Hitler, one might think it safe to assume that in an America in which a figure of Django Freeman’s standing exists that things would pan out the same as they did in the real world. It’s not a massive stretch of the imagination to conjure up a follow-up to Django Unchained in which the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was but an unsuccessful attempt, for example. Tarantino has long played with the placing of his own works within a place or time though: Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs exist in a peculiar mix of the contemporary times of their production with elements of the 1950s and 1970s mixed in, while Kill Bill Vol. I exists on a plane of existence quite distinct from it’s own companion piece, not to mention the rest of the Tarantino oeuvre.
Django Unchanged culminates with a sequence that is to the Western what The House Of Blue Leaves sequence was to Kill Bill. A crescendo of chaos, that brings to mind the cartoon and is wholly cinematic, Tarantino closes his film by making it clear that, for anyone still unsure, he completely rejects realism. That isn’t to say that the film is all bombast and no echo though; the film is ultimately a hugely compelling meditation on freedom, which of course ties in to the very core of the American dream. The film’s most aggressive sequence, in which a man is set upon by a pack of dogs follows in the tradition of the most testing moments from the director’s other films by taking place off-screen, yet the message remains the same: America is a very violent place. Tarantino is not excusing this, and he certainly isn’t defending it. If anything he’s analyzing and attacking the reasoning behind why things are the way they are. It’s the more subversive scenes of macabre that affect the most, such as the reciting of the story of the skull of Old Ben. There’s a neat twist in the manner in which it is Schultz the German, who is the patron of freedom, given the territory Tarantino and Waltz together covered in Inglourious Basterds, especially given the clear allusions between the Nazi holocaust and the treatment of slaves in the days of the Union. Alongside The Master and Killing Them Softly Tarantino’s film is the latest in a line of movies that deconstruct the very idea of what it is to be American.