Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The ever-increasing budgets and box office takes for Quentin Tarantino films tell one of the most interesting stories of director-branding in recent memory. It’s a rare case where audiences don’t just expect a director’s quirks and mannerisms that come with the story and actors who they pay to see. Rather, mainstream audiences pay for those quirks, which are by and large serviced by the story. This is the effect of director branding; the word “Tarantino” now rings in the public consciousness more as an adjective than a noun. It’s a promise of profane and lyrical dialogue, of nostalgia for the coolest parts of bygone cinema, of unhinged structure and satisfying shocks, and of explosive violence and humour closely courting each other.

The ever-increasing public awareness of Tarantino’s strategy of making cinephilia into mass entertainment signals that he’s onto something, regardless of whether or not you approve of his career or specific pictures within it. While debates over the merits and meanings of Tarantino’s career and oeuvre will doubtlessly rage evermore, and I don’t have anything particularly original to add to it, I will posit this much: Tarantino films are so successful because they allow audiences to confront and deal with things that make them uncomfortable. Just as Hitchcock or early Spielberg tapped into fears and discomfort in a way that made them fun, Tarantino slams outrageous bloodshed in front of us, primed or chased by an adjacent punchline, allowing us to interface with violence in our culture.

In the case of Django Unchained, Tarantino directly addresses what may be his most sensitive subject yet, at least for an American audience: slavery. And, though time and repeat viewings will as usual allow a neater unfolding of the film’s form and subtexts, I’ll stake here and now that his approach to it is marvellous, as is the film on the whole.

Django begins with the unchaining of the eponymous slave (Jamie Foxx) by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter, and let me interrupt the plot description a moment to say that Waltz has turned in another show-stopping performance. Schultz is an extremely elegant, moral, clever, and witty control freak, and Waltz plays him with a level of glee that is not sadistic but, like his last Tarantino turn as Colonel Hans Landa, is merely enthralled to understand and master his environment. He is handily on par with that breakout as a sociopathic SS officer in Inglourious Basterds. Like that film, he is in fact the co-lead and holds more agency than any other character, and, like that film, neither marketing nor the Weinstein awards push mark him as anything but a supporting player.

That is not to denigrate Foxx’s Django, who is far quieter and less lovable than Schultz, but nonetheless a complex and compelling character in his own right. Django is freed because he knows the faces of three brothers whom Schultz has targeted for a bounty, and the two soon form a partnership, first to find and kill Schultz’s targets, and then to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda, who was separated from him and sold to an unknown buyer.

Schultz has Django commit to an elaborate scheme to buy back his wife from this buyer, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, of whom I will comment no further than “he slays it”), a pretentious sadist who has his slaves fight to the death for sport. It’s here that Tarantino does his neatest trick: though much of the movie’s violence is played as over-the-top entertainment, Tarantino actually treats the issue of slavery as a serious subject, and scenes involving slaver sadism are all about as far away from fun as you can get — branding, eyeball gouging, and being torn apart by dogs are all played with brutal gravitas.

There’s an argument to be made that this is a hypocritical depiction of violence, that Tarantino is espousing brutal revenge, but I think he is simply working in two different modes: that of genre entertainment, and that of a serious-minded depiction of a historical travesty. Indulging in the former doesn’t cheapen the latter, and Tarantino trusts that his audience is smart enough to know the difference.

What’s more, the film somehow never feels tonally at war with itself: the brutality of slavery forces the characters into intense moral dilemmas, which in turn inform the suspense and gleeful bloodletting of the picture’s action passages. One scene in particular involves a man whose life is threatened, but whom Django and Schultz have a chance to save. The two weigh his life against their goal of rescuing Broomhilda. Both take their decisions to the logical conclusion, and the moral quagmire of the moment haunts the rest of the film.

But though it does have its moments of horror to remind us of the gravity of the issues at hand, Django Unchained spends the vast majority of its running time as a viciously entertaining pastiche, an incredible melange of comedy and suspense, and of course the always-enthralling punch and meter of the auteur’s dialogue. The climactic gunfight, in particular, may be the best single moment of action filmmaking Tarantino has undertaken to date; a masterpiece of choreography, blood sprays, and sound design that makes slow-motion bullets sound like falling mortars.

It’s another successful revenge film in a catalogue brimming with them, and taken with the Jewish revenge and study of audience complicity in Inglourious Basterds, it may indicate a direction for Tarantino that few could have predicted: an “issues artist.” In Django Unchained, Tarantino is grappling with a major issue that is typically treated with too much melodrama and speechifying, and not enough frank depiction of the nightmare that it must have been. That he does so intelligently and responsibly, while still giving us a fucktonne of fun, marks this film out as yet another major achievement.


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