“The name’s Django.” “How do you spell it?” asks Amerigo Vessepi. “D-J-A-N-G-O. The ‘D’ is silent,” says Django. Vessepi responds, “I know.”
I was quite enthusiastic about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. Tarantino would be tackling a Spaghetti Western, or a ‘Southern’ as he calls it since technically the film takes place in the South, not the West. I was wowed by the trailers, which promised the kind of movie that Tarantino actually delivered. There were two shots that stood out in the trailers for me: the first was the shot of blood splattering over white flowers, and the second was the shot of Franco Nero (the original Django) sitting next to Jamie Foxx (this film’s Django). Tarantino has an excellent track record with his feature films (let’s ignore the segment he directed for the terrible 1995 anthology film Four Rooms), and I knew he would deliver the goods for this one.
Django Unchained features Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who is bought by a former German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is now a bounty hunter who’s looking for the Brittle brothers, and he needs Django’s help in identifying them. He promises Django his freedom and a portion of the reward once the brothers have been collected. One night, Django tells Schultz of his wife Hilde, which is short for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was taken from him. Intrigued by this (Broomhilda being a German name), Schultz tells Django the German legend of Siegfried and Broomhilda and, seeing the parallels between the legend and Django’s situation, offers to partner up with Django. Schultz will teach Django proper etiquette, to shoot, as well as to read, and they’ll collect a lot of bounties through the winter. Once winter has passed, they’ll go search for Django’s wife. Their journey will take them all the way to Candieland, a notorious Mississippi plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and run by Candie’s main house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
The performances are well-rounded; everyone gets a chance to shine, even the cameos from Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, James Remar (who gets to play two separate characters, albeit one of them very briefly), and Franco Nero. The scene I enjoyed most would probably be the one where Stephen reacts to Calvin’s instructions regarding the treatment of Django when they arrive at Candieland. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is simply marvelous; this film joins Skyfall (lit by Roger Deakins) and Lincoln (lit by Janusz Kaminski) as my three favorite lit films of 2012. Richardson’s lighting looks naturalistic; the outdoor images are reminiscent of beautiful postcard images of the American South (ironic considering the time period it’s set in), and the indoor lighting makes use of light coming in through windows and cracks for daytime-set scenes as well as candle lights for evening-set scenes (the candle light scenes reminded me of the ones from 1975’s Barry Lyndon). The screenplay by Tarantino is superb but also a little surprising in that he doesn’t employ the non-chronological story-telling that was present in his previous films (other than some flashbacks, the narrative is presented chronologically).
Tarantino’s soundtrack choices were also enjoyable. I had anticipated the use of the Django theme song from the unrelated 1966 film (which featured Franco Nero as the title character), as well as some Ennio Morricone pieces (“The Braying Mule” and “Sister Sara’s Theme” from Two Mules For Sister Sara). For me, the most surprising piece of music used was a piece called “Nicaragua,” a Jerry Goldsmith composition from the 1983 film Under Fire (which by the way, is not a Western!). I was curious as to how Tarantino would use it (and how much of it), and, being familiar with the piece, I knew it would fit in well somewhere in the film. Surely enough, Tarantino used it to great effect in the sequence where Calvin Candie, King Schultz, Django, and company ride up to Candieland, with Stephen looking on in disbelief when he sees Django.
The so-called controversy surrounding the film is the use of the word ‘nigger’ in the film. Spike Lee himself slammed the film and attacked Tarantino (just as he did 15 years earlier when Jackie Brown was released). Most people, including myself, have stood with Tarantino on this issue since he’s only keeping the characters as authentic as possible. Spike Lee’s other main objection was Tarantino making a film that involved slavery (since he’s a white man). As Tarantino and many others have pointed out, including myself, his film is about a man trying to rescue his kidnapped wife; they just happen to be slaves in the American South a couple of years prior to the Civil War. With that setting, Tarantino needed to address slavery in the film. By ignoring it, he’d be dishonoring everything that black people have achieved in the United States.
Tarantino not only addresses slavery, but he uses the viewpoint of an outsider to guide Django (as well as the audience). King Schultz is a fascinating character. He’s originally from Germany and he used to practice dentistry. For the last five years he’s worked as a bounty hunter. He treats slaves as fellow human beings instead of property. For example, in an early scene, he needs to put up a light to Django to look at his face. He’s also holding a shotgun, and asks one of the slaves to hold the shotgun. The slave looks at the other slaves in disbelief as he holds the shotgun while Schultz talks with Django. It is only when needing to put on an act that Schultz treats slaves like property. He personally dislikes slavery, and it is his journey with Django that will drive him to take action after witnessing horrible things occur to slaves (one incident in part because of him).
Tarantino does the Spaghetti Western genre justice, at times channeling Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. For a film that grimly deals with slavery, it is quite funny. The action is just incredible; the shoot-outs were amazing and fun to watch. My favorite on-screen death belongs to Quentin Tarantino, who makes a cameo as an Australian who’s an employee of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. His character is carrying a lot of dynamite. When Django gets free, he grabs a gun and kills the other Australians working with Tarantino’s character. Tarantino turns to see what has happened, and Django shoots him. In an instance, the bullet hits the dynamite and triggers a huge explosion. Reading my description doesn’t do it enough justice, it is at least five times better watching it on screen. In an odd way, Django Unchained serves as an interesting companion film to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. All that’s left for me to say is to go see Django Unchained in a theater near you.