2019 Film Essays

Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland: ‘Django Unchained’ Is Mature and Packed with Postmodern Trademarks

Welcome to John Brhel’s “Once Upon a Time In Tarantinoland” — a look back at all eight of Quentin Tarantino’s feature films, in anticipation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s July 26 release.

In case you haven’t noticed, Quentin Tarantino really has a thing for revenge stories. After releasing a series of hip Los Angeles-set crime dramas (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), he went on a revenge thriller tear, starting with Kill Billfollowed by Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. But that apparently wasn’t enough blood-soaked retribution for the director, as his follow-up, Django Unchained, returns to the revenge thriller sub-genre.

Django Unchained is a curious entry in Tarantino’s filmography. It’s probably the most consistent in emulating the imagery and themes of another sub-genre he’s attempting to ape, the Spaghetti Western. At the same time, however, it’s a daring, post-modern spin, with over-the-top violence that makes a film like A Fistful of Dollars look almost G-rated in comparison. In tackling racism and the slave trade, Django Unchained finds Tarantino exploring more mature and  heavier themes than ever before.

A (Mostly) Straightforward Western

Thanks to Tarantino, there’s a movie genre known as the Southern, a term he coined to describe Django Unchained, which is essentially a Western set in the South. And damn, if Django Unchained isn’t a Western. Tarantino had been borrowing from genres for years — smashing them together, mixing and matching tropes and imagery to suit his tastes. With Inglourious Basterds, he had gotten close to directing a film in a clear-cut old-school genre (the WWII film), and with Django Unchained, he remained even truer to the tenets of the Western. If it seems authentic, it’s likely because Tarantino literally uses authentic Spaghetti Western music and visuals. It’s there right from the get-go — not only is the film inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django, but Tarantino even uses the film’s title font and opening song. Some might call that unoriginality or thievery; others may it call it an homage. Whatever the case, it works. 

Django Unchained looks like a Western. Check out the gorgeous vistas that Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) encounter in their journeys. Kudos to cinematographer Robert Richardson on capturing the physical beauty of Wyoming, California and Louisiana. The visual majesty on display is a far cry from the pared-down sets and gritty streets of Los Angeles. And the choice in color palette further accentuates the Spaghetti Western tone. Muted browns and blues give the film a 70s vibe without resorting to all-out sepia or fake scratches. It’s knowingly retro without devolving into camp. 

In keeping with an old-timey look, Django Unchained is indeed a grounded film. Sure, the violence is outrageous as usual, but there’s none of Tarantino’s trademark time-hopping, structure-breaking shenanigans on display. Django Unchained is a mostly linear film, with a few flashbacks here and there for effect. But this isn’t to say that the film is devoid of playful anachronisms or pop culture indulgences. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most faithful period piece, but it also features “100 Black Coffins” by rapper Rick Ross. And don’t forget “I Got A Name” by Jim Croce, which plays over a montage as Django and Schultz set about their journey. It’s lovely. 

A “Big Issues” Movie

Aside from 1941 and Indiana Jones films, Steven Spielberg gets serious when he tackles World War II, evidenced by heavy dramas like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Tarantino, on the other hand, made Inglourious Basterds, an award-winning film, but a far departure from the solemnity of Spielberg’s films. But even if Inglourious Basterds isn’t as high-minded as Spielberg’s WWII dramas, it does show a maturation on Tarantino’s behalf, in that he was willing to tackle grave injustices done to a class of people for hundreds of years. 

With Django Unchained, Tarantino takes on heavier subject matter. Here, he delves even deeper than Inglourious Basterds, attempting to show both the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon African-Americans by slave owners and the general public. Django can’t even ride a horse without receiving ugly looks from passersby. Slaves are fed to dogs and forced to fight to the death, in scenes that significantly depart from Tarantino’s normal cartoonist depiction of violence. 

Tarantino had used the N-word in his movies before (some might say flagrantly, perhaps even irresponsibly), not as an approval of the term but more so to be true to those types of scuzzy characters who would flippantly toss around the racial slur. But many took offense to his usage of the term, Spike Lee included, with some even surmising that Tarantino, a privileged white man, delighted in hearing it.

One can’t help but wonder if Django Unchained is somewhat of an apology from Tarantino to the black community. This is a story where a black man gets his revenge on slavers, one which delights in the mowing-down of dozens of racist white men. Like Shosanna’s revenge on the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, Django’s takedown of Calvin Candie’s men is righteous, cathartic. These men are, like the Nazis, the ultimate evil, and the film delights in their deaths. 

In a 2007 interview with The Telegraph, Tarantino said “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies.” With Django Unchained, he did just that. The film takes on heavier subject matter, sure, but it’s not melodramatic or preachy. This isn’t historical fiction; it’s fantasy. It’s Tarantino. Django Unchained isn’t intended to be a serious account of the Antebellum South slave trade. But there is levity — plenty of good humor, in fact. A scene where the KKK argues over not being able to see out of their masks is one example. And don’t even get me started on Django doing target practice at a snowman.  

An Acting Tour de Force

Django Unchained is a curious Western, ahem, “Southern,” in that it stars a freed slave, a German dentist and a villain who live at a place called Candyland (really!). These characters give the film a unique identity, and make for some fascinating dialogue, and they’re all played with aplomb by Foxx, Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively. 

Waltz had displayed his tremendous acting abilities in Inglourious Basterds, playing the charming-yet-devious “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa. He won an Oscar for the performance, so it’s no surprise to see Tarantino utilize his skills again in Django Unchained. Schultz is, like Landa, charming and deceptive, but — this time around — he’s one of the good guys. OK, Schultz mows down villains like nobody’s business, but he rides around in a wagon with a big tooth on top, and he’s just so darn genteel. 

Foxx shines as Django. He talks back to racist whites with attitude and makes these so-called big shots tremble in their boots. Schultz may steal the show in the first act, but when Django is freed and empowered, he doesn’t hold back. Throughout Django’s journey, however, he’s forced to witness horrific acts being done to his people, and he can’t voice his concern or risk blowing his cover. In these scenes, Foxx is smoldering, molten lava, cocking his gun in silence, readying himself for a fight. To paraphrase Tarantino from Pulp Fiction, he goes “medieval” on their asses.

Rounding out the bigger names in the cast is DiCaprio, who plays (well, this is awkward) a really charismatic slave owner. The first shot of DiCaprio/Candie — a smash zoom as he greets Django and Schultz — actually became a popular meme, it’s such a memorable introduction.

Candie is a complicated man. He exudes class and privilege, but he buys and sells human beings with the ease in which one might purchase a car. Like Schultz, he’s a comical character with an edge, and DiCaprio effectively captures both sides.

Django Unchained was a massive commercial and critical success, taking in $425 million at the box office and garnering Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, along with a Best Supporting Actor award for Waltz. The film might not be the most innovative in Tarantino’s oeuvre, but it’s got real stakes and memorable characters one can root for. Django Unchained is packed with Tarantino’s postmodern trademarks, but it also has the added value of actually addressing some serious issues.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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