Quentin Tarantino‘s love of cinema knows no bounds. From his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, to his previous effort, Inglorious Basterds, his hell bent on taking his own deep seating passions and making them his own while at the same time paying tribute to them in such a way that if his twelve-year-old (probably younger) self would be a fan of the film he’s currently making.
With Django Unchained Tarantino tackles the world of pre-emancipation blaxsplotation tales told in the form of a western. If that’s too many modifiers for you then please exit at the next punctuation.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is one day sought out by a German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in order to aid him in seeking out a bounty of his. After completing this task Dr. Schultz decides to help Django in finding his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and freeing her so they can be together again. This takes the pair to the infamous plantation known as Candie Land, owned and run by Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Westerns are the American staple of film. Just as was said by Randy in Silver Linings Playbook, “what’s more American than a cowboy?”. The film sticks to that staple to the T. The mix of characters, from the opening scene with Ace Speck (James Remar), to the almost unintelligible Mr. Stonesipher (David Steen) until we eventually reach Billy Crash (Walter Goggins), that builds a wonderfully deep ‘western’ world, like the one that was presented in the Coen Brothers‘ True Grit a couple of years ago keeps the avid fan happily enjoying traversing the racially charged story that is presented.
As a spaghetti western Django Unchained is unmatched in paying tribute to not only it’s namesake but all the films that came before it. The film presents us with Django as the coolest character to walk the West (or more specifically the South of America). No matter what he’s presented with he knows how to keep his cool for the sake of attaining his ultimate goal, which is Broomhilda. We see this time and time again as he has to endure taking on a number of roles that disgust him at his core. So when we eventually reach the ending climax of the film where he’s able to remove these characters and be himself as he wants to be it becomes even more satisfying watching him walk off in the night.
Let it not be said that this film doesn’t come without fault. There are a few choice moments, especially in the first third of the film, where it becomes indulgent and wasteful. One such moment that comes to mind is the scene with Jonah Hill. It’s a moment where it feels that the movie decided to pause to go on a complete tangent just for the sake of a specific joke but doesn’t add anything to the narrative, and personally didn’t seem that funny to begin with. It’s a moment in films that is always sticks out because it’s a moment where the film allows us all to take a collective breath before we dive in deeper. This moment can be a great one, but when it actively distracts from everything else is when it fails and this is a case of that very thing happening.
Just as Tarantino took the world of WWII with his film Inglorious Basterds he assumes his tale during the time of slavery in America in Django Unchained. He doesn’t use this world as a source of commentary but one for context of his characters and that’s important to note. Many viewers come from a place of offence with how Tarantino fails to hammer a message of anti-slavery into the film — other than a few choice moments where we’re privy to Dr. Schultz (curiously named Dr. King Schultz) and his views on slavery. This is a poor criticism of the film as it never congratulates it for existing. We see characters, such as Dr. Schultz, mention how he loathes the business of slavery but would like to use it to his advantage in his current scenario (as it relates to Django in the opening third of the film) but at the same time makes sure to allow Django to understand the world he’s about to enter and ask him to enter into an agreement to be a part of that world.
This allows for the movie to leave all thoughts of being a complete depiction of “what it was like to be a black slave in the 1850s” at the door. While the film contains some very shocking imagery as it pertains to the treatment of slaves it is no way meant to be a completely realistic impression of what was. It instead is more of a cartoon version of violence that audiences have enjoyed in all of his films regardless of their subtext. Understand that as offensive by dismissing or dismissing by knowing that nothing he can out on screen would equate to what really was and therefore skipping the whole debate all together, but that’s what it is.