Mitchel Waite © 2022

Django Unchained & The Tarantino Universe

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino returns with a “Southern” take on the Western genre with Django Unchained. Following on from the successful Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino re-teams with the charismatic Christoph Waltz, who plays bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Under the guise of weary travelling dentist he tracks down the currently enslaved Django, played by Jamie Foxx, who can help him identify his next bounty. The two of them then set off to hunt down the Brittle brothers, and along the way discover Django’s goal to free his enslaved wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who is held by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django then agree to pair up and hunt down the rest of his bounties for the winter, then venture off to rescue Broomhilda shortly after.

Waltz effortlessly delivers each line oozing with charisma; he’s the perfect choice for a character that can talk his way out of a room with no doors, such as Schultz. Also a perfect pairing with a writer/director like Tarantino, who’s signature lengthy and grandiose dialogue style can’t really be replicated by anyone else. It’s a nice complimentary character to have alongside Jamie Foxx, who plays Django as the strong and silent dead-shot gunslinger who’s restrained swagger does most of the talking.

Tarantino has proved that his love and knowledge of world cinema history is ridiculously expansive, and is most visible throughout the dialogue of Inglourious Basterds.  Juxtaposing conversations points about the films of German director G.W. Pabst have replaced that of commodities such as hamburgers and cigarettes. It can be seen as a sign of an artist maturing and fine-tuning his craft, whilst tackling a pastiche of different genres in the same film. As always there’s some dark humour that often suddenly appears and it’s used to great effect. The execution of it in Tarantino’s films has almost a British theatricality and ‘toing and froing’ to it. Note the dialogue exchange between Django and Schultz before taking out the final Brittle brother hightalin’ it horseback (“Are you positive?”), and the diner stand-off at the climax of Pulp Fiction. Also, the unexpected and sudden nature of it adds to its edginess. Samuel L. Jackson’s first scene in Django Unchained, when the two protagonists arrive on horseback to Candyland, is full of absolute hilarity at his reaction. Jackson really steals the show with the character he has put together, as I didn’t expect his role to be as major as it was. Given the subject matter of the film, there was a lot of awkward and restrained laughter across the audience. It’s in interesting stigma to analyse, as a comedy element in a film that’s set against the backdrop of slavery shouldn’t work. But then again Blazing Saddles divided its critics too, and its humour is actually taking aim at the ignorance and absurdity of the slavers.

The loosely-connected universe that Tarantino has created is a stroke of filmmaking genius, personally. Whilst not completely shunning the real world, it allows him to break the constraints (amid all of the pop-culture references) and instead create his own rules. Take Kill Bill as an example; where else would you see lead character wearing a yellow jump suit blend in, whilst carrying a samurai sword, and then take out an entire Yakuza unit? Certainly not in a Martin Scorsese film. The commodities created within the universe, such as Red Apple cigarettes, create subtle nods of acknowledgement to his previous works. This is something small for the fans to follow without alienating any newcomers. We don’t actually discover, a) what happened to the diamonds in Reservoir Dogs, or b) what’s in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It’s a conversation piece that has caused divided opinions for years, and will for years to come unless Tarantino firmly states his opinion. Even characters cross over briefly; Donny Donowitz (Inglourious Basterds) could be seen as Lee Donowitz’s father (True Romance), Captain Koons’ (Christopher Walken’s character in Pulp Fiction) ancestor appears on a ‘wanted’ poster in Django Unchained, Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) is Vic Vega’s (Reservoir Dogs) brother. Also, ‘Fox Force Five’ from Mia Wallace’s failed TV pilot is essentially the ‘Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’ in Kill Bill (and same actress too, clever!).

Then there’s the subject of violence. There’s no doubt that even before you’ve finished saying, “the new film by Quentin Tarantino,” it will already have been handed an 18-rating (or R-rating, for North American audiences). Reservoir Dogs’ infamous ear-slicing torture scene now seems budget-restrained since the release of Kill Bill. Tarantino practically decorates his sets in a cartoon-ish blood red that both shocks and amazes the audience. It’s a relief to see a director be fearless of box office performance, and not restrict their film to a 15-certificate. Death Proof, the almost forgotten Tarantino film which was one half of the Grindhouse feature, is cortex-searingly brutal in places. It’s not his best writing when held against the rest of his works, but technically it nails the look and feel of the grindhouse B-movies.

Amongst the violence and Big Kahuna Burgers, there’s Jackie Brown. I’ve not found an appropriate place to mention it, as seems to veer off on it’s own tangent in the Tarantino World. Not in a bad way by any means, it’s a great film. It’s timing in the filmography is when an artist is trying to broaden their palette; break the mould of that best-selling “second album” and not just churn out stylish crime films. Jackie Brown may be misunderstood by some if they were expecting another Pulp Fiction, but in this he takes more time to focus on his characters. Which is unquestionably one of the very few ways that directors can demand 145 minute-plus running times.

I thoroughly enjoyed Django Unchained, and even more so on the second viewing. The eccentricities of its characters, the beautiful cinematography and sharp editing are just some of it’s positives. Let’s hope Tarantino spectacularly rounds off his “alternate history” trilogy with another five-star entry.

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