Genre: Western, Drama
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jaime Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
The opening scene alone should let you know what you're in for. We're greeted with a song "Django" (Rocky Roberts & Luis Bacalov) that tales of the a man out to set things right. A line of men shackled together can be seen. The camera pans wide to show an establishing shot of rocky outcroppings and desert hardpan. It is clear, immediately, that these men are slaves. Those on horseback are their keepers and their march is far from over.
They trudge on through wooded areas and through driving snow. It is quite clear that these men are tired. The journey has been quite long yet onward those slave drivers push. Big iron is pointed and threats levied against these objects. It is made quite clear, from the start, that is all these human beings are. Objects. Cattle to be herded towards the auction.
Somewhere in East Texas is where our story truly begins, though. The dottering wagon of a dentist ambles into frame and riding shotgun is Dr. King Schultz. The chaingang comes to a halt and the newcomer offers warm salutations to their keepers. He wishes to offer a hefty sum for purchase of a particular slave. One who knows of a band of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. Django is his name. This wisened fellow who speaks with perculiar German accent has a grasp of the English language that is remarkable considering it is not his native tongue. He speaks circles around the two men in charge of these slaves.
He only wishes to procure a single slave from their band, as he repeats to them. Resistance is offered and in an abrupt burst of violence one of the duo is shot down. The speed with which this "dentist" moves is near demonic and soon the other fellow is near mortally wounded. Each shot is accompanied by a flourish of blood that just explodes onto the screen resoundingly despite the rather dim lighting of the shot. Our titular hero is soon freed thanks to the good Doctor and as are the other slaves. We are maybe two to three minutes in to the film, at most, and already we have a body count. The unfortunate fellow who was only wounded? His horse has him pinned down and, well, the newly freed slaves courtesy of Schultz aren't regarding him kindly. Violence followed by a sudden empowerment of men who were, moments earlier, property. This all leads into a sweeping tale of Django seeking out these men with the bankroll and knowledge of Schultz and, eventually, seeking out those who would keep him from his wife, Brumhilda. It is a rather standard setup for a Tarantino revenge flick with a buddy road movie feel tossed in for good measure.
Tarantino has always made films that use violence as means to carry the story along. Often we, as the audience, are greeted with such abrupt and strong actions from his characters that it soon becomes old hat. Take, for instance, Samuel Jackson's turn as Ordell in Jackie Brown. He is a preening and charming bastard who uses fear to get his way and will dispense lead at a moment's notice. Pulp Fiction's dynamic duo of Jules and Vincent Vega are quite hasty to dole out violence and do so without hesitation. The Bride of Tarantino's two-parter Kill Bill might be one of the most efficient killing machines ever put to celluloid. All of this is said to remind us that Tarantino is no slouch when it comes to making use of violence. Here he really lets loose, though, and we are greeted with a level of violence that one might not expect from such a big budget picture.
Blood can be seen by the gallons and, often, there is an almost comedic flow and timing to some of the choreographed scenes that lends itself to not taking these scenes quite as seriously. Tarantino, as quoted when referring to his process of writing:
“When I’m writing a movie, I hear the laughter,” Director Quentin Tarantino said. “People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? ‘Pulp Fiction’ has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for ‘Reservoir Dogs’ just as much as it does to ‘Pulp,’ is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh. Because that’s a death. Because I’m hearing the laughs in my mind, and there’s this dead silence of crickets sounding in the audience, you know?”
That laughter is quite evident as these scenes of violence play out on screen. Viscera and bodies fly with reckless abandon and, for further affirmation of this, there is a scene that, without giving too much away, involves a posse composed of Klansmen in hoods wanting to seek out Django in the night and put an end to him. It would be tough, honestly, for a conversation about eye-holes in hoods to be funny in most films but somehow QT does it effortlessly and it was, thankfully, a rather welcome respite from back-to-back scenes of tension and over-the-top carnage.
The nature of it is to be expected as the genre QT is drawing from was built on this dedication to making the savage nature of the West something to be tamed within the frame of a lens. These scenes, however, pale in comparison to whenever wrongs are committed to those subjugated by plantation owners and the like. One scene in particular involving a runaway slave and a pack of dogs has stuck with me weeks after initially viewing the film.
If this were just another crazy ass Tarantino joint with violence by the bucket and some humor in it there wouldn't be much more to say but, as he has proven time and again, the director manages to find the perfect chess pieces to place on the board as the drama unfolds.
Christoph Waltz provides the deus ex machina for the auteur's story but also turns in another magnificent performance as Dr. King Schultz. He is charming, a little conniving and very good at what he does. He provides a magnificent foil to Jaime Foxx's Django. Django is given freedom and a gun placed in his hand to right the wrongs done to him and his wife Brumhilda (played by Kerry Washington) and he delivers a noteworthy effort.
Leonardo DiCaprio, however, continues to knock stellar roles just out of the park and this film is no exception. He truly inhabits the skin of Calvin Candie, plantation owner and Mandigo fighter connoiseur. He is a true product of the twisted society and economic status quo that the South was built on back then. He, like his Father before him, runs the Candieland plantation. He profits off the backs of slaves and lines his pockets further pitting them against each other in gladiatorial combat. The Academy recognized Waltz for his role but I feel a definite snub has happened here with DiCaprio not being nominated as well.
Samuel L. Jackson is also a treat to behold here as the house slave, Stephen. He is Uncle Tom times ten and as villainous as some of the downright serpentine characters in the film. He, too, was complicit in the whole-sale oppression of Candieland upon entire generations of people. It is interesting to see that as fantastic as Samuel L. is regarding his pairing with Tarantino in the past this might be his best role yet.
The more I reflect on the movie the more I find to appreaciate about it. I think that is what sets it apart from anything else I saw this past year. We saw with Inglorious Basterds that Tarantino is getting older and better at crafting a story. Django is the culmination of this former video store and rabid fanboy's journey into his prime. He is not only giving us the revenge fantasy we know and love with his prior works but also a story that is vitally important. He has not only gotten better as a writer but also as a showman and by God this is one hell of a show.
If you want more about why I loved this movie so damn much feel free to hit the following link: A deeper dive, if you will, into what made Django my top film of the year.
*Also one last note: Tarantino made use of Enrico Moriconne for a lot of the film's key musical trappings but also tapped into other artists such as Tupac and even got Rick Ross to make a song specifically for the film that is just dynamite. The soundtrack, much like the movie, is a worthy investment.*