“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”
Review by David Feltman
Quentin Tarantino has built his brand on cribbing exploitation templates and aestheticizing (some may say fetishizing) them. Gangsters, war flicks, car/road movies, kung fu, giallo, blaxploitation and horror have all been given nods in Tarantino’s oeuvre. But, in the same way “Inglorious Basterds” had more in common with Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” than “The Dirty Dozen,” the infamous director has a talent for loading his films with more interesting themes than what appears on the surface.
Despite its namesake, “Django Unchained” is a spaghetti western in style, not story. Yeah, there are bounty hunters and bad guys riding around in cowboy hats. Tarantino implements the extreme close ups and lingering establishing shots of the country side associated with the genre, but in all honesty, “Kill Bill” was more of a western. “Django” is “Shaft” meets “Roots” with an overt parallel to the German fairy tale of Siegfried and Broomhilda. And the movie is all the more fascinating for it.
“Django” is simultaneously Tarantino’s funniest and most serious work to date. Occasional cartoonishness notwithstanding, great pains are made to capture the racial realities of slavery. Details like scourging, branding, spiked collars and the omnipresent n-word never let the audience forget the ugly social dynamics. Tarantino even goes so far as to name his benevolent, slave-freeing bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) Dr. King.
The seriousness is never allowed to become overbearing or out of character and sobering scenes are often cut with comic relief. The influence of Mel Brooks is undeniable, especially in a KKK sequence, which feels like a deleted scene from “Blazing Saddles.” Likewise there’s plenty of blood and bullets to keep genre fans sated.
Underneath the shoot ‘em up posturing of the film, the most intriguing aspect is its preoccupation with the artifice of performance. Several discussions are devoted to the importance of portraying a convincing character and the climax of the film turns on the abilities of the cast to deny their feelings and stay in character. Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the allegorical dragon guarding Django’s wife, is the ultimate actor and villain in the film, constantly modulating between sycophant, confidant or whatever the situation demands of him in order to serve his master (Leonardo DiCaprio).
“Django Unchained” is easily one of Tarantino’s best films and is endlessly re-watchable in spite of its hefty 165 minute run time. The movie is slow to wrap up, but is ultimately satisfying with everyone from Jaime Foxx to the original Django, Franco Nero, turning in enjoyable performances. There’s no better film with which to spend the holiday season.