Tarantino’s new blood soaked Western is set in the Deep South during slavery. Jamie Foxx stars as freed slave Django, unchained by German bounty hunter Dr Schultz, to hunt down some wanted slave owners. Christoph Waltz was excellent in Inglorious Bastards, and he brings another assured performance as Dr Schultz, with a similarly quirky mix of charm and creepy intensity. Django teams up with Dr. Shultz to work as bounty hunters, killing bad guys until they can track down Django’s wife, who has been sold to an infamous plantation known as ‘Candieland’. Enter Leonardo Di Caprio’s devilish plantation owner Calvin Candie, hamming things up as the cartoon villain you’ll love to hate. He’s supported by Stephen, the conniving head of the household, played with menace by Samuel L Jackson. And for the spaghetti Western aficionados out there, watch out for a cameo by Franco Nero, who played the original Django.
The first half of Django Unchained makes for an exciting and original contemporary Western. With a wide cast of characters, and strong central performances from Foxx & Waltz, there are some excellent scenes and some sharp dialogue as the lead characters track down a series of wanted men. There is one standout scene where they stop-off at a small town and Dr. Shultz disposes of the local sheriff. There is also some great cinematography in breathtaking ‘big country’ landscape shots of the bounty hunters heading to the mountains. The soundtrack is also worth a mention. An eclectic mix of music from original Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone, with tracks such as Richie Havens’ Freedom, Luis Bacalov’s Django theme and Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins are blended together in innovative ways.
To get to Django’s wife, Django and Dr. Schultz pose as potential slave buyers, looking for a fighter in the arena of ‘Mandingo’. Apparently, there is no real historical evidence that the callous blood sport of Mandingo was in fact real, and it’s largely lifted from a 1957 novel of the same name, which was turned into a movie in the mid-1970s. One scene in Django Unchained includes a horrific ‘Mandingo’ fight to the death, shown in graphic detail. Once inside ‘Candieland’, the bounty hunters’ cover is blown by an apparently psychic Samuel L Jackson, who conveniently manages to guess the entire plot thus far. From here things start getting a bit deranged, as Django’s quest to free his wife morphs into a vengeance directed at the institution of slavery. As with Inglorious Bastards’ massacre of the Third Reich in Tarantino’s previous flick, it gets to a point where the action and plot drive off the fiscal cliff in a whirlwind of blood and gunfire.
It’s difficult to justify any criticism of violence in a Tarantino movie. You know the score, if you don’t like violence in movies, you don’t go see a Tarantino movie! Stylized violence is a Tarantino trademark, so you expect a certain level of shock and awe. At best, carefully layered tension and some elongated dialogue is followed by bursts of unexpected violence. On this level, Django Unchained is no different, and at times makes for a gripping watch. But overall, the violence in Django seems less palatable than in Tarantino’s other movies. Perhaps this is partly to do with the backdrop of slavery, and partly to do with the sheer malevolence displayed in many of the violent incidents. The punishments seen meted out to slaves in Django Unchained are ugly. Though the slave owners and their henchmen are disposed with extra viciousness, these do not quite match the whipping, eye gouging and ripping apart by dogs. Yes of course Django is a violent movie, but it’s also quite a cruel movie.
Spike Lee has branded the film “disrespectful”, adding that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust”. Likewise, Tavis Smiley described the film as a “spoof on slavery”. On the other hand, star Samuel L Jackson stated in defense of Tarantino: “He’s making entertainment. Hopefully, it makes you go ask questions and you Google it. If you want to learn something from a movie, go watch a documentary”. Slavery has a legacy that has not been addressed in American society, and is very rarely portrayed on the big screen. But unlike Inglorious Bastards’ context of the holocaust and World War II, there is not a wealth of documentaries or movies about slavery. Therefore, criticism of Tarantino’s depiction of slavery as insensitive is understandable. And though the emphasis in on entertainment, and there is humor in Django, it is often mixed in with racist slurs and N-bombs, or people screaming in agony while buckets of fake blood are thrown around.
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