Two years before the American Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave turned bounty hunter makes his way to Mississippi to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave at the Candieland plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). We have come to expect a highly stylised, postmodern extravaganza whenever Tarantino directs, and we get it. There’s a lot to like about the film but it has some jagged edges too.
It’s a ‘Western’, set in America’s Deep South, (in Tarantino’s words a ‘Southern’), it plays around with our expectations and it’s great fun. There are many nods to the genre throughout, not least a remix of John Ford’s iconic doorway scene from The Searchers. But clearly the objective isn’t authenticity: at Candieland, a young woman answers the door wearing a short French maid outfit, it’s hard to know what to make of these touches, it is 1858 after all. In another exchange Django is told what a bounty hunter does, (kills white people for money), and he quips ‘what’s not to like’. It’s a quotable line, but there’s a very contemporary feel about the language, and it stops you in your tracks for a moment.
Another such instance is when a group of vigilantes (precursors of the KKK), complete with white bags with holes for eyes, set off lynch mob style, only to find the bags slipping, they can’t see, they are all complaining, it’s a ridiculous Monty Python style exchange, amusing yes, but in this film, somehow misplaced and self-conscious. Tarantino is celebrated for his dialogue, and it seems he is trying too hard to get witty, quotable dialogue going at any cost. It sometimes misses the mark and all of a sudden it’s as if you are watching another film.
Foxx is a striking figure as Django, whose wardrobe includes a 70s style pimp hat and coat, a Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ silky number and even a Hannibal Lecter-style mask. Foxx plays it up for the hate scenes and down for the love scenes and he is good to watch. DiCaprio and Jackson are memorably hateful; the only weak link is Tarantino himself, in a mercifully short role he once again lowers the tone of his own movie with some pitiful acting; you can’t help wishing he’d settle for a Hitchcock-style cameo.
Tarantino is a talked about director and Django Unchained will ensure the dialogue continues. No doubt someone will count the number of times the n-word is used in this film, it was a lot, it’s the last word in the film in fact. It’s gratuitous there’s no doubt about that but I suppose that’s the point and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off, but somehow Tarantino does. Then there’s the violence, as you might expect, much of the film is tinted red, people don’t just bleed they spurt fountains of blood, the violence is stylised, graphic (and silly at times), it’s comic book violence. Stay away if that’s not your thing.
The film lacks coherence but it’s enjoyable, strange, and lovely in places. Like when we first meet Broomhilda, she speaks enticingly to us ‘they call me Hildy’, these touches are great. It’s a feel good film in some ways! A film that takes the premise of injustice and revenge and plays it out satisfyingly again and again. After all, these were crimes against humanity, and retribution (albeit through film) can feel exhilarating. There are some truly heart-wrenching scenes: when Django is waiting for the owner of Candieland to produce his wife, we learn there is a problem: she’s in an underground box, a ten day punishment for running away; the box opens and we see a woman curled up naked, a shocking scene, much more shocking than the exploding body parts. Django Unchained depicts white America’s inhumanity in terrible and moving detail, I’m sure it will be loved, hated and quoted. It’s not for everyone, but I’d probably watch it again, when the dust settles.
Janet Rogerson

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