Before we begin, as one boy racer said to the other boy racer when preparing to buy an unnecessarily souped-up car, “There will be spoilers!”
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino's latest film. It is set in Texas and Mississippi just before the American civil war. Identifying itself squarely as a Spaghetti Western from the moment it begins (big red credits, jangly Ennio Morricone type music and wide shots of high and dry mountains) it follows the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a recaptured runaway slave who is unexpectedly purchased at gun point by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German emigree ex-dentist cum bounty hunter.
Schultz needs Django's help in identifying three criminals he wants to track down. Professing to loathe slavery, he proposes that if Django will help him catch them, he will receive his freedom and some money in return. He is as good as his word. Indeed Django shows such promise as a bounty hunter that Schultz proposes they partner up for the winter and, when Spring comes, head back to Mississippi to try and free his wife, who was sold separately as a punishment for escaping. Django agrees.
The first hour or so of the film is largely successful. Foxx and Waltz make for an entertaining pairing as Schultz, a winning combination of wordy charm and lethal intent, teaches Django, his quieter more intense partner, the ins and outs of bounty hunting.
Tarantino pushes things a little far at times, for example, dressing Django in an unnecessary butler’s outfit for one sequence. However, his talent with dialogue sees him getting away with most things, notably a scene in which a group of clansmen bent on burning Django and Schultz alive stop and argue because the eyeholes in their hoods have been cut too small. Going for laughs in westerns is dangerous territory – the risk of everything going all “Blazing Saddles” is ever present - but Tarantino skillfully avoids that pitfall even when the pair use a snowman for target practice. And while he’s doing it he photographs the American West (or wherever happens to be doubling for it) beautifully.
By the time Schultz and Django come down from the mountains and head to Mississippi everything is going pretty well filmwise. However, it is this decision which sows the seeds for later problems in the film, as at this moment it changes from a Western featuring an ex-slave to a film about slavery stuck inside an awkward Western format. This is problematic because, and I’m aware this this may sound obvious, a western needs to take place in the West – by which I mean not literally the West but a place in which law has only a tenuous grip meaning that a man must rely on himself, his morals and his gun if he is to prosper and if those he loves are to be kept safe.
Mississippi isn’t this kind of West. It is a Southern society where the rule of law exists (even if that law is brutal and cruel there is absolutely no doubting its strength). Therefore the whole Western idea starts to struggle a little here. It begins with the idea of rescuing Django’s wife. The obvious way to do it would be for Schultz to go and see the guy who owns her and offer a large amount of money to buy her freedom while Django waits patiently in Texas, but there’s no movie in that so we are fed some preposterous nonsense about why this wouldn’t work and so Schultz has to pretend to be a rich emigree wanting to get into the Mandingo business (slaves forced to engage in horrific fights to the death) with Django pretending to be his slaver expert advising him on which fighters to purchase.
Tarantino tries to get us not to notice this clunk by speedily introducing us to Mr Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) a Southern plantation owner. Candie prides himself on being a real Southern gentleman with flawless manners and French pretensions. But beneath his faux-civilized façade he is revealed to be savage, cruel and ignorant. He is brilliantly written and superbly portrayed by DiCaprio. Things get even more impressive when Django and Schulz accompany Candie back to his mansion and meet Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) Candie’s “senior” slave who plays the part of an amusing crotchety butler to the white folks while running the house with a rod of iron below stairs and keeping the other slaves in a state of perpetual fear. Tarantino notches a real achievement here as he actually gets Jackson to remember he's a good actor and put in a performance for the first time since...well before Snakes on a Plane anyway. He is genuinely unnerving.
But, good as this part is, it is a long way from the untamed West. And when walking home it dawned on me where Django and Schultz had found themselves. Which is in a different film entirely, specifically the opening credits of Gone With The Wind. Gone with the Wind, as well as being notoriously soft on slavery, also created/fuelled the myth of the Southern gentlefolk. This myth has it that even though the South losing the civil war was, in the end, the “right” result nevertheless something was lost with it – manners, civility, hospitality, etiquette etc. Tarantino righteously strikes at this sick myth with mighty vengeance showing the Candie plantation as representing nothing more than a poisonous midden of vile racial prejudice and despicable cruelty.
I have no problem with this. In fact, I think it's a brilliant thing to attempt and long overdue. But not within the confines of a spaghetti Western about bounty hunters. The genre just can't be stretched that far without tearing itself apart.
And the tearing apart doesn't take long to start. The flimsy ruse of pretending to buy one slave but really wanting to buy another is exposed. And Quentin's trigger finger which has been getting awfully twitchy during the long dinner party scene gets to start firing bullets.
And once this happens it all goes wrong. First, Tarantino decides to kill off Schultz so he can focus solely on Django. He does this in such a psychologically unconvincing way that the Academy should demand his best script Oscar back. What happens is Schultz, a man who has maintained his cool the entire film, suddenly can't resist shooting Candie because Candie insists on him...shaking his hand. I mean, come on. Not only is it completely unconvincing it gets rid of two of the strongest characters in the piece when there is still plenty of the movie to go.
But Quentin isn't bothered because he's going to spend most of it shooting. Which leads me to the next problem. The guns seemed to be awfully powerful for the mid-19th century. While acknowledging absolutely no knowledge of firearms at all, it seemed pretty unrealistic to me that six shooters could suddenly rip apart mansions, but that's what happened. By the end of the film, Candie's mansion looked like the last scene of Scarface. And that was far-fetched even though Al Pacino had a machine gun.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. There's still the worst moment of a Quentin Tarantino movie to come – the director's cameo. After Django is eventually captured having caused untold carnage, the plantation owners decide not to kill him (Tarantino has by now given up on anything even faintly resembling plausibility) but instead to hand him over to a mine company where he will work until he drops dead.
And the representatives of the mining company are Australian. At least two of them are Australian. One of them is Quentin Tarantino doing an Australian accent. You can talk all you like about Hitchcock appearing in all his films but he was a brief silent presence. Tarantino – not so much.
First he horrendously miscasts himself. The men transporting Django and the other slaves to the mine are poor white men. The other two look like it being thin and stringy. Quentin on the other hand looks like exactly what he is - a large, healthy, well-fed member of Hollywood's elite. You need to do more than put on a stetson to make yourself a cowboy. But what you certainly shouldn't put on is an Australian accent. With every word he uttered you could sense the audience in the cinema caring less and less.
Having bid credibility farewell some time ago, Tarantino has no problem having Django talk his way out of captivity and be handed a gun in about a minute and a half. He then immediately shoots the man who gave it him. Tarantino then has even more self-indulgent fun blowing himself up cartoon style with a stick of dynamite.
The audience in the cinema was laughing by now. And their reaction showed just how far the film sinks in the final part – from beginning as a fascinating attempt at making a modern spaghetti Western through a bold (if flawed) attempt to confront the evils of slavery to finally just being silly. All the dramatic tension had gone. We were just left to get through the final shoot out as Django heads back to the Candie plantation to rescue his wife.
Django duly kills pretty much everyone – Tarantino seeming to take a rather tasteless special pleasure in the shooting of Candie’s sister – that got a laugh and a couple of cheers in the cinema I was in. And then he makes his final and, in my opinion, biggest mistake.
Earlier in the film when expounding his racist views, Candie had told Django and Schultz he believed black people were naturally subservient. He backs up this nonsense by cutting open a dead slave’s skull to “prove” it. He further goes on to claim that a black person who was not naturally subservient would be an aberration – one in ten thousand is the number he gives. It goes without saying that this is complete rubbish and at the point Candie says the lines the film is clearly demonstrating this and is deliberately (and courageously) drawing a strong parallel between Southern whites and the Nazis.
It is therefore quite staggering that at the end of the film Tarantino has Django echo Candie’s words announcing that Candie was right about one thing – that he, Django, is that one black person in ten thousand. The suggestion underlying this line is that Django is implicitly endorsing Candie’s view about the natural subservience of black people. Now I don’t believe this was Tarantino’s intention – I think he just wanted to draw attention to Django’s spectacular and unique bravery – but it was an unbelievably sloppy way of doing it and demonstrated again just how lazy this film gets towards the end.
Which of course finishes as it should with our hero riding off into the distance with his girl at his side. But if he’d ridden off with her forty five minutes earlier it would have been a much better film.