Why I Love Django Unchained
Posted on Sunday December 23, 2012, 14:53 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
I was surprised when it turned out Sony Pictures had pitched the hardest to release Quentin Tarantino's new film internationally, since I remember all too well the last time that studio released a spaghetti western featuring Leonardo DiCaprio: it died a death. I haven't seen Sam Raimi's The Quick And The Dead since it came out in 1995, but back then it was considered toxic. I, on the other hand, loved it; a kind of berserk, ultra-heightened Sergio Leone pastiche – as made by the Three Stooges – it nevertheless maintained the genre's grim sense of anarchy, albeit by making that point in a wildly literal way. All the same, it wasn't loved, and neither was James Mangold's underrated 3:10 To Yuma (2007), which – although it was played much more straight, being a remake of a 1957 “proper” Hollywood western based on a short story by one of Tarantino's favourite authors, Elmore Leonard – looked to be the closest thing to a neo-spaghetti western that we were ever likely to get. Django Unchained, though, is a different beast. All the while wholly and irrefutably modern, it has the tang of authenticity, like a film that fell through the cracks back in the heyday of the genre (which, in true Italian style, can only be roughly dated, usually from 1964 to the mid-70s). And as such, it may be the first film to re-establish a long-dormant continuum.
Interestingly, it is perhaps Tarantino's least physically referential film since Jackie Brown, and there have been more nods to spaghetti westerns in the three films that followed his atypically low-key third outing as director. Yes, the old Klingon proverb from Kill Bill Vol 1 about revenge being “a dish best served cold” came from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, but it is also an important line from Death Rides A Horse, one of many pupil-mentor movies that may have inspired the trajectory of Django Unchained. In Kill Bill there is also a to-do list like the one in Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary; meanwhile, in Inglourious Basterds, Aldo Raine's neck shows a rope-burn, like the scar on the doomed hero of The Great Silence (also by Corbucci), and Raine's penchant for scalping owed perhaps a debt to that of Burt Reynolds' title character in Navajo Joe (ditto).
The great thing about Django Unchained, however, is that it isn't a litany of references. On set, I asked Tarantino if, now he was actually doing a western, he was aware of smuggling other elements into it? “If I am,” he said, “I'm not conscious of it.” However, the most impressive thing for me is that his film does exactly that: Django Unchained looks at a great, vast hole in cinematic history and decides to plug it. By which I mean that Tarantino is making not one but two films here, the other being the blaxploitation film that even the Italians feared to make. OK, they had the balls to make Goodbye Uncle Tom (more on that later), but the issue of race was hardly ever touched upon, except, incongruously, in the kung-fu themed My Name Is Shanghai Joe, which somewhat hollowly highlights instead the discrimination facing Chinese immigrants in the wild, wild west.
Django Unchained, though, takes the challenge head on. But where the temptation would be to make a straight blaxploitation movie, Tarantino takes a different route. Most blaxploitation movies work on a straight line: Shaft, Slaughter, Truck Turner, Coffy, Foxy Brown – they may start on the backfoot, but the hero(ine) is always cool from the get-go and only becomes cooler. Django, as played by Jamie Foxx, goes for something richer, and it's interesting that some of the film's more critical reviewers appear to have forgotten him altogether. Which is, perversely, because Tarantino is being bold: instead of taking the revenge-fantasy blueprint, he starts small. Foxx's Django is a nobody (“Sixth slave from the seventh on a chain-gang line,” to quote QT) when the film opens.
There has already been some lamenting that Django starts off in second place, next to Christoph Waltz's charming, eloquent but steely Dr King Schultz*, and then drops into third when the moustache-twirling villainy of Leonardo Di Caprio's plantation owner Calvin Candie enters the frame. But this is entirely missing the point. Django Unchained is not a buddy movie, or even a superhero origins movie, it's a mentorship movie, and yet again there is some genre subversion going on. In a spaghetti western, mentorship is rarely a straight transaction** – like Death Rides A Horse, in which a somewhat reformed Lee Van Cleef takes under his wing the only surviving member of a family killed by his former gang (John Philip Law) and must wait for the day when the boy figures out his true identity. In The Big Gundown, Van Cleef (again) tracks down the alleged child killer Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), only to discover that Cuchillo is smarter than he thought and that they have a lot to learn from each other. And most relevantly there is Day Of Anger, where Cleef (yet again) adopts Scott (Giuliano Gemma) – the bastard son of a whore who picks up the trash in a middle-class town – and toughens him up, all the while harbouring a secret agenda (this film is unusual, since there is a surprise second mentor who creeps up in the last reel).
But in Django Unchained there is no side to Dr King's mentorship. Dr King wants to see the right thing being done, and Django's desire to find his wife Broomhilda captures his imagination. After seeing the film, many people have wondered why the pair don't just go straight to Candie Land and ask, straight-out, to buy her, but Waltz sells that completely: he understands that Broomhilda is a delicate cargo, like the nitroglycerine in Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages Of Fear. In this instance, the film follows Basterds's example, since spaghetti westerns rarely feature a mission***. If they do, it's flat, nihilistic payback, like Minnesota Clay getting out of prison and trying to find the man who framed him. Likewise, the original Django (Franco Nero) sought the man who killed his wife (I've always thought that Franco Migliacci's lyrics to the theme song – “Oh, Django/After the shower/The sun/Will be shining” – are a bit insensitive for a man who's recently been widowed).
If I have a quibble about the film, it's that Tarantino cut a moment just before Dr King and Django enter Candie Land to find Broomhilda. This is where Billy Crash (Walt Goggins) inspects a lineup of Mandingos (including the wonderfully named, at least for British viewers and aficionados of the Carry On series, Sidney James), bought by Dennis Christopher's Moguy for fighting, and brutally shoots them. I can see why it was cut – the film runs perilously close to three hours as it is – but the scene cements the fact that Candie Land has no respect for non-whites. It also sets up Crash as the film's last-but-one villain in the film's riotous, bloody climax. Nevertheless, it does streamline the movie, clearing out the character-heavy background to prepare Django for the centre stage.
What Tarantino does in that final act is pretty sensational, turning the film quite unexpectedly in on itself, in much the same way that the director appropriates the theme from They Call Me Trinity (the first of a comedic spaghetti western subgenre, the kind that so infuriated Leone). Tarantino puts the music to great use here – “You may think he's a sleepy type guy/Always takes his time/Soon I know you'll be changing your mind/When you've seen him use a gun, boy/When you've seen him use a gun…” – and with its pistol fetishism (“He keeps alive with his Colt 45”), it rivals only Vikki Carr's theme for Matt Helm romp The Silencers (“Oh, a gun can be a .22/Or a .38 and it will silence you”). But this is Django's moment, and Foxx delivers the turnaround perfectly. And one-upping Basterds’ money shot – a dying Hitler, riddled with bullets – Tarantino makes the final showdown much more complex; a complete mindspin for anyone expecting simple white-liberal-guilt catharsis.
Although much has been made of the familiarity of the material, Django Unchained does actually break new ground for Tarantino. The fragmented stories of old have grown into a sleek, straight narrative, and this is surely his best film to date in terms of integrating image and music. Given his reluctance to use score in the traditional sense, it is quite remarkable that so many of the songs here are contemporary. John Legend's Who Did That To You? could sit easily on the soundtrack to Jackie Brown (next to Bill Withers’ Who Is He And What Is He To You?) and takes its cues from Pulp Fiction's Jules in its when-I-lay-my-vengeance-upon-thee tone (“My judgement’s divine”). Then there's also the not-so-small matter of an original song by Ennio Morricone (the haunting Ancora Qui, sung by Italian star Elisa), as affecting in a key scene as any needle-drop used previously.
Finally, the film does have some fascinating points to make. Just as Basterds made ingenious use of the Nazis' obsession with cinema (it is a little-known fact that, had World War Two not broken out when it did, Joseph Goebbels would have been on his way to the 1939 Venice Film Festival), Django Unchained lifts the lid on the antebellum South. It was hinted at in Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's shocking 1971 faux-documentary Goodbye Uncle Tom, in which an Italian film crew are greeted as equals by Southern slave traders, but Tarantino really pushes the pretensions of the era. Calvin Candie likes to be called Monsieur but doesn't speak French, and his plantation is his own Versailles, with its court favourites and rituals. Candie himself says, “I've been surrounded my entire life by black faces. I only have one question – why don't they just rise up and kill the whites?” It's a question Tarantino does address, and as it is in every true spaghetti western, the answer is simple: money. Just as the leering ranch-hands conspire to make Candie's word law, so Samuel L Jackson's deliciously vile housekeeper Stephen and Nichole Galicia's courtesan Sheba are collaborators too. But unlike a true spaghetti western, Django Unchained does not climax with a pyrrhic victory, like, say, The Hellbenders, which ends with the flag of a lost cause floating off downstream. Instead, it erupts into carnage and chaos, from which a new and much more confident Django rises, a man reborn.
The film may not quite be Tarantino's true epic – despite Robert Richardson's majestic widescreen vistas, the temptation to stage tense situations in ever-smaller rooms is still hard for the director to resist – but Django Unchained delivers on every promise the director has so far made, perhaps the first Tarantino film to do so since Kill Bill. It's hard to imagine a film so dark and yet so restlessly enaging and dynamic, not to mention, in its final stretch, so emotional and human. If there was a more entertaining adult movie made in 2012, I would seriously like to know about it.
* A few reviewers have commented on Dr King's being German (even though Waltz is Austrian) as a nod to spaghetti western veteran Klaus Kinski, so wonderful in The Great Silence and, one of my favourites, Every Man For Himself, aka The Ruthless Four/Sam Cooper's Gold. However, aside from the fact that Kinski was usually dubbed, I'd argue that foreigners are an integral part of the genre. In The Mercenary, Franco Nero plays Sergei Kowalski (“The Polack”) and in Compañeros he is Yodlaf Peterson (“The Swede”). In both films, both by Corbucci, the foreigner's nationality has direct bearing on the plot, hinting at a wider world, usually of arms dealing, and in the latter case Peterson's passport even (physically) complicates the plot.
** Sergio Sollima's Faccia A Faccia is the perfect example of a complicated mentorship movie. Sandwiched between his fantastic La Resa Dei Conti (which was retitled The Big Gundown, even though its title translates closer to “the settling of scores”) and its semi-sequel Run Man Run (a diluted version of the original with some wildly incompatible performances), Faccia A Faccia is a much more overtly political western, in the vein of Leone's Duck, You Sucker and, more pertinently, Damiano Damian's A Bullet For The General. Here, we have Gian Maria Volonté as an ailing professor, on his way to Texas to recuperate from a potentially fatal illness, who finds himself kidnapped by a bandit (Tomas Milian) at a rest stop. The professor preaches peace and tolerance, but at the point where the bandit actually starts to listen, the professor gets a taste for political violence. The film's social comment frequently gets in the way of its entertainment value, but its prescience in predicting the Europe of the 70s – The Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Brigate Rosse closer to home in Italy – is still pretty impressive.
*** Although it is massively plot-driven and somewhat complicated, Compañeros illustrates this point very well. Until The Swede arrives in Mexico to crack a safe, that's all that's going to happen. But because the merciless Mongo has killed everyone in the town, The Swede must travel north of the border to rescue the captured resistance leader – the last man standing who knows the combination – and bring him back alive. Along the way, it becomes pretty clear that The Swede is a well-travelled man who, amongst other scrapes, once left a colleague to die via crucifixion in Cuba, but part of the fun is that little is forthcoming in the way of backstory (see also Sugar Colt, a slightly more tongue-in-cheek spaghetti western, also with a touch of the Matt Helms). Incidentally, Compañeros also prefigures Tarantino's own playfulness and fondness for pop-cultural in-jokes, since a key scene finds Franco Nero once again dragging a familiar wooden box and later reunites him with the original Django's somewhat primitive but nonetheless deadly machine gun. Tarantino often credits Corbucci's films with an anything-goes approach to death and violence (as he wrote in Fangoria, “[T]he more innocent they are, the more likely they will die…”), and none of The Second Sergio's films encapsulates this ethos quite like Compañeros.
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Posted on Monday December 24, 2012, 23:30
Not sure if you're expecting much disagreement here Damo, only it isn't out for another month (almost) so, you know, we've not had as much time to process it as you have...
Posted on Tuesday December 25, 2012, 00:55
We have American readers now, who'll be seeing it tomorrow. They're always giving me shit for being too British.
Posted on Sunday December 30, 2012, 07:19
I wish so much that more film critics talked this intelligently; in general, but particularly when it comes to Tarantino films. Every time he makes one they all seem to be in competition for who came come up with the glibbest dismissal, or they go in for rather backhanded praise ("Indulgent, violent nonsense, but I found it quite fun!"). No-one ever bothers to actually watch his films trying to see what's in there. One critic wrote of Django Unchained, "Tarantino no longer makes movies; he makes trailers", a line so smug and ridiculous it just enrages me.
Damo, your piece on Inglourious Basterds on this blog was a massive breath of fresh air (I still go back and read it when I get annoyed by Tarantino reviews, just to calm me down), and this is another excellent one, I was really hoping you'd write something about Django. Sometimes, reading reviews makes me want to give up on film critics as a species entirely - but this sort of thing gives me some hope. Thanks
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