Django Unchained just might prove that Tarantino has regained his form, or not. So, has he regained his form?
This is a question many critics appear to be asking, and the answer seems to be, well, undecided. Some critics are hailing Django’s second half as a masterpiece whilst criticising the remainder. Some are latching onto the film’s violence, claiming that the cartoon style of “…human bodies bursting like jam-filled confectioneries…” works to undermine the more serious messages that the film is attempting to convey.
Others are criticising the film’s incongruities, such as the incorrect date at the start of the picture: “Texas, 1858, two years before the Civil War”; most Americans know that the Civil War actually began in 1861, don’t they? And the sport of bare-knuckle ‘Mandingo’ death fights (which underpins the whole second half of the narrative!), which historians claim never actually happened. There are other anachronisms, too: Klu Klux Klansmen appearing seven years before the Klan was actually formed, Schultz’s telling of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried story eighteen years before its premier, and phrenology’s theory of ‘scientific racism’, which scholars claim wasn’t postulated until the 20th century. So how could an auteur like Tarantino make so many mistakes in his latest movie? I would argue that he hasn’t made any mistakes, but more about my opinion later. Instead, let’s concentrate on the main question above and ask what was Tarantino’s previous form? Did he even have a form? If so, has he really regained it? To even attempt to answer these questions, we must first briefly travel back in time to… TARANTINO’S ARRIVAL.
Any discerning moviegoer should know Tarantino’s story. The first-time writer/director roared onto the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, a low budget crime film that has since been lauded as the greatest independent film ever made. He became an overnight Hollywood phenomenon and quickly sold his next two scripts, True Romance and Natural Born Killers. He was offered the directing gig for numerous projects, including Speed and Men in Black, but he passed on all of them, instead choosing to retreat to Amsterdam to write his next feature.
Pulp Fiction slammed onto cinema screens in 1994 to overwhelming critical praise. If Reservoir Dogs had signalled Tarantino’s arrival as a fresh and raw Hollywood talent, then Pulp Fiction cemented his place as one of its top auteurs. The American crime movie genre would never be the same again.
Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s third consecutive foray into the crime genre, was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, but where his first two features had aligned critical opinions, this latest feature polarised them. “Needlessly long”, “ordinary”, “two-dimensional” and “self indulgent” are some of the descriptions hurled at this movie, and out of all of those, I think the latter is the most telling – more on that later. For the record, I love Jackie Brown. I think it’s a great character study and hits the exact tone and atmosphere of Leonard’s novel. But Tarantino’s overriding attribute is that he’s a devout cinephile, and as such his ambitions were (and still are) far broader than the crime genre, which he proved with his next three features.
Kill Bill 1 and 2 (which is really one feature cut into two) gave Tarantino the chance to really indulge his passion for Asian cinema, and in retrospect you have to suspect that this was his master plan all along – to make his name and use the freedom that offered to create his loving pastiches of the old movies he grew up with. And it is here where critics claim that Tarantino went astray and lost his previous form. He continued his self-indulgent assault with Death Proof, a homage to the Italian slasher movie, and then with Inglorious Basterds, his nod to the war films of old. The latter of these productions indicated that Tarantino’s film-making form was on the rise again, but ultimately his scriptwriting skills let him down and Inglorious became too muddled and suffered a loss of focus. However, Inglorious’s saving grace had to be the superb Christoph Waltz, which brings us neatly back to… DJANGO UNCHAINED.
Waltz plays Dr King Schultz, a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. He rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavery to help him hunt his latest quarry, the Brittle brothers. Django is the only one that Shultz knows who can identify the brothers, so Schultz offers him a deal – help him hunt down and kill the brothers to earn his freedom. Deal struck. After a brief excursion to a small town, and a very amusing sequence involving the sheriff (an almost unrecognisable Don Stroud) and the town marshall (Tom Wopat of The Dukes of Hazard fame), they find their way to the plantation of Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, played by Don Johnson with a grandiose relish that should guarantee him a cascade of work offers.
Whilst Schultz schmoozes Big Daddy, Django searches the plantation for the Brittle brothers, finds them, and kills them. This upsets Big Daddy, so he rounds up his men later that night with the intention of killing Schultz and Django while they sleep in a field. This leads to the most inspired and hilarious Klu Klux Klan sequence I have ever witnessed on screen. The sequence is made more stunning when you realise that Tarantino isn’t just riffing on Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles, he’s parodying W. D. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Superb.
Later, after Schultz and Django have escaped the klansmen, Django confides that he is married, and that his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), was sold to another plantation owner after they tried to escape. Schultz offers him another deal, partner him through the winter, and then he’ll help Django search for his wife.
So, in a montage molded from John Ford’s The Searchers, a linchpin production of the western genre, Schultz teaches Django how to shoot and how to kill white people for money. Then, when Winter’s over, they look for Broomhilda, a search that brings them to… CALVIN CANDIE.
This is where Django Unchained changes tone all together – I laughed throughout the first half of this movie, but sat stoney-faced throughout the seriousness of the remainder. And it is this schism that is responsible for polarising critical opinion.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, the owner of a large plantation he’s named Candyland, where guests are entertained with black female sex slaves and white men wager on black slave men who are pitted against each other in gruesome bare-knuckle ‘Mandingo’ death fights. Candyland ultimately becomes a symbol for the sadism and oppression that lie behind slavery.
Schultz and Django come up with a plan to enter Calvin Candie’s world as slave buyers looking to purchase a champion Mandingo fighter. This sets up everything that follows throughout the second half of the film, and is one of the reasons why Tarantino has taken so much flak regarding his ‘account’ of the American slave trade. Scholars and historians claim that there is not one single diary, chronicle, article or piece of evidence that proves the existence of Mandingo fighting during the slave trade era. Yet, many historians do admit that it is quite feasible to assume this practice could have occurred. The inclusion of Mandingo fighting is clearly Tarantino’s nod to the 1975 film Mandingo, which chronicles the lives of slaves on a southern plantation who are trained to fight other slaves, and which was based on Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel of the same name. For Tarantino to use Mandingo fighting as a narrative device to underpin the entire second half of the film says something about his intentions as a film-maker, but more on that later.
DiCaprio is, it’s fair to say, at his very best playing Candie, a self-possessed southern aristocrat infected with an overabundance of politeness, an unhealthy infatuation with his sister, and an obsessive commitment to his status as a racial supremacist. The sequence where, hammer in hand, he explains to his guests why blacks are racially inferior to whites is one of the most intense and terrifying portrayals I have ever seen him display. Underpinning Candie’s malevolent supremacist powers is his head butler Stephen, a role that Samuel L. Jackson plays with the same show-stealing quality as Waltz and DiCaprio. In fact, so good is each of their performances that it’s impossible to separate any of them as best actor.
Stephen’s introduction creates something special below Django’s surface. We have Shultz and Django against Candie and Stephen, but the doubling is reflected in a bizarre mirror of opposites – the white man Schultz who has taken the black man Django under his wing, and the black man Stephen, who is the leading figure and real brains running and upholding Candie’s world. Where Django is disgusted with his own act of posing as a Mandingo trader of slaves, Stephen is utterly at ease with supporting and ensuring the continuity of Candie’s loathsome racism. Ultimately, when Django’s revenge comes to the fore and the shooting starts, we actually don’t get the story of a black man taking revenge on his and his wife’s white oppressor; we instead get the story of a black man taking revenge on his and his wife’s black oppressor. What is Tarantino up to here? That requires more thought, I feel…
Tarantino, like most auteurs, has an unpleasant legacy of casting himself cameos in his own productions, and this, for me, is Django’s lowest point. Tarantino plays an Australian jailer tasked with transporting Django to the mines, but when he talks he sounds more like an Eastend gangster straight out of that world inhabited by such characters as Brick Top, Franky Four Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony. The sequence is saved only by the satisfaction of his ludicrous and violent death while carrying a bag of dynamite.
So, had Tarantino regained his form?
When I said earlier that I didn’t believe Tarantino had made any mistakes with Django Unchained (even though the film is full of inaccuracies and incongruities regarding the American slave trade), my opinion came from the point of view of a cinephile, not a historian. The most important thing that the critics seem to have lost sight of is what Tarantino does, and also what contemporary Hollywood movies are about. There was a time when the Hollywood studios were only interested in making Oscar-worthy productions. They weren’t overly concerned with how the movie would be distributed (and therefore how much profit they could make) or even, most importantly, what the audience wanted to see (market research didn’t exist in the business side of Hollywood until the early 80s, when Barry Diller brought in Frank Mancuso jr. to work at Paramount!).
The 60s and 70s, with their mix of independent movies like Easy Rider and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and big studio productions like Star Wars, Jaws, and Alien, changed all of that; Hollywood caught on to the fact that big ‘entertainment’ films that delivered the now sought after content of smaller independent movies could make a lot of money if marketed right. Within the space of three to five years, Hollywood repositioned itself from being a creator of sophisticated, Oscar-worthy narratives to the architect of filmic entertainment. Tarantino is currently at the heart of that ethic. His films are about entertainment above all else. In Django, he’s brought together many historical aspects of slavery, and even some that are hearsay, in order to create a piece of entertainment. On that level, Django Unchained is not a film about slavery. To review and criticise it from that viewpoint alone is unfair. It’s a film about revenge and the injustices humans inflict upon each other, told in the only way Tarantino knows how. That’s all. To wail about the inaccuracies and incongruities of these historical facts is ludicrous – Django is just a film, just a piece of entertainment that was never intended to be a realistic, historical account of the slave trading era of America’s history.
It is also Tarantino’s most self-indulgent piece of film-making since Kill Bill, yet he’s managed to cement that indulgence into the sophisticated film-making form he demonstrated with his first two features. On that level, Tarantino may not have truly returned to the earlier form he demonstrated with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but has, instead, demonstrated a new and better form that strikes a brilliant balance between the sophisticated film-making that he’s renowned for – the reason why the critics once loved him – and supplying his personal brand of self-indulgent and ludicrous entertainment, and that is Tarantino at his best.