Django Unchained (2012)

Like Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained sees Tarantino make a violent revenge film set substantially in the past. Django lacks the typical structural cleverness most Tarantino films, including Basterds, have (while flashbacks are peppered throughout the film, it is for the most part linear). And, while this is arguable, I think the protagonist’s violence in Django is intended to be primarily cathartic, unlike Basterds where there was some commentary on dehumanisation going on.

Note that this review contains spoilers.

The music is superb; beating out Kill Bill for my favourite Tarantino soundtrack. Hearing new Ennio Morricone cues along with remixed Rick Ross and James Brown – and having it all work – is a trick few could pull off. I particularly liked how the James Brown/2Pac remix near the end of the film mixed in samples of both Jamie Foxx’s earlier dialogue in the film, and dialogue he never even said (but may have been thinking). Some are irritated by how aware Tarantino’s films are that they are films, but I thought it was a fantastic touch and really made the figure of Django feel all the more mythic.

The cast is fantastic, and DiCaprio delivers one of the few performances of his I really thought was fantastic. This is easily one of Samuel L. Jackson’s performances as well; he excels as Stephen. Foxx and Waltz are perfect as the protagonists; although I think the pace of the film meant Foxx lacked a few character-building scenes on his own that may have helped give him more depth.

I appreciate how, to my mind at least, later-career Tarantino tries to incorporate more clear themes and ideas into his work. Django and Basterds are messy at times, but are trying to communicate points more complicated than how films like Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill were primarily just fun cinematic stories (Jackie Brown is an outlier but I’d say that is more about character than theme, let alone plot). Django is clearly about slavery and the interplay between institutional white slavery and subjugated black slave.

Something I found really fascinating about the film was how it examined the stupidity of racism. From the incompetence of the proto-Klan members, the complete pseudoscience spouted by Candie, to how easily Django is able to manipulate those fully believing in the rightness of slavery, Tarantino seems to draw attention to the absurd stupidity of subjugating an entire people on claim of race. Stephen clearly outclassing Candie in terms of intelligence yet still being so subservient and warm towards him, and the “natural” order of race is preserved. The way the slavers cling to any possible notion that preserves this order – Candie’s obsession with faulty phrenology, and how Candie tolerates and even approves of Django when he acts as a black slaver (as an embodiment of how slavery is the natural order of things, a black man that still sees slaves as below white men and seemingly fights to preserve that order).

I also appreciated the exploration of power in the film. The scene where Django attempts to persuade the Brittle brothers to not whip his wife sees him make numerous logical appeals against it, then perform an open act of submission and begging to try and appease the brothers, but none of it works – the power of slavery isn’t a rational system enforced from the top-down, it’s an all-encompassing system supported by nearly everyone because of how it’s held as implicit, the natural order of things. Django’s problem was how he explicitly told the Brittle brother, when submitting to him, “I’m keeping it funny, begging how you like” or something to that effect – while yes, he is submitting, he is openly recognising the order of slavery. Any recognition of it in a way extending beyond it being the natural of order of things in, in some way, defiant.

All this leads to the finale being wonderfully cathartic – not just the shoot-out, but Django’s expert manipulation of white psychology through his tricking of the Australian miners. He’s succeeded in manipulating the psychology around slavery to his benefit, exactly where he failed earlier with Broomhilda’s whipping.

The soundscape in the final shoot-out is absolutely brilliant; totally worth listening to as loud as possible on a surround sound system. My favourite sound design of any Tarantino film.

If I have one big critique of the film, it’s that it sorely missed the late Sally Menke, Tarantino’s long-time editor. You could feel the cuts in a way you didn’t with any of his other films.

While the ending is extraordinary cathartic, I always feel regretful seeing Django take on the clothes of Candie and even get a similar shot with him smiling to Candie’s introduction shot in the film – while you could read this as Django’s total domination and defeat of Candie, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something sad about it (not for Candie’s sake, for Django’s). Does it represent that he stills sees the plantation owner fashion as the elite, aspirable look? Is he not free of some sort of envy of the slaver class, the same way he chooses the ridiculous blue suit akin to their fashion earlier in the film? It’s just a tad disquieting for me and prevents the ending from being as unabashedly happy as the other Tarantino films with “happy” endings. This isn’t a criticism though; I think the ending to Django is strong and his adoption of Candie’s clothes a fascinating element of it.

I give it four bullets, and a spattering of fake blood.

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