“He’s a Rambunctious Sort, Ain’t He?”
One would think Quentin Tarantino would’ve directed a Western by now. He has repeatedly cited Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as one of his all-time favorite films. Reservoir Dogs, his debut feature, climaxes with a Mexican standoff. Kill Bill’s cast of characters includes a cowboy-type villain with an affinity for tobacco and rock salt. Pulp Fiction, though set in the city, has a feel of vintage Americana that would’ve felt at home in the desert frontiers of the Midwest.
So it’s hardly surprising that Django Unchained, Tarantino’s riff on and homage to a genre already so well-nestled into the contours of his style, works. Not flawlessly, mind you, but ferociously, and in every single aspect as a shameless Tarantino picture. The opening scenes are a showy throwback to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 50’s and 60’s, blaring the movie’s bright red title over an archetypal backdrop of sand dunes and desert rock formations as music from Ennio Morricone, legendary composer for Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, thrums in accompaniment. Tarantino’s love of the genre is palpable.
But this is no story of cowboys and Indians. Set in the Deep South two years prior to the Civil War, Djangotears right through America’s slave-owning past and fashions a pulp yarn from its pieces, political correctness be damned. The narrative follows a pair of bounty hunters – one the ex-slave Django, one the German Dr. King Schultz – as they trek across slave country, killing white folk for money and trying to smuggle Django’s wife from the clutches of sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie. Drenched in Tarantino’s unblinking brutality and attitude of irreverence, Django is the American Western gone wild.
And what brutality! In grand Tarantino tradition, Django douses its story with an ocean of carnage, often upped to uncomfortable extremes. Here is a movie that features not one but two instances of castration by bullet, both of which join the ranks of heads bursting like watermelons, branding, eye gouging, and thick, goopy blood being flung unceremoniously over the stark white canvas of forest snow. Although those who’ve chosen to stick with Tarantino over the years have probably more or less settled into his crimson groove, Django still toes the line between black humor and shocking excess. Most of the film captivates in its lurid abandon, but sometimes, too much is too much.
In reality, some of Django’s best moments occur unaccompanied by violence. Ever since the start of his career, Tarantino has proven himself an exceptional scribe – one of his trademarks has always been to flaunt an arsenal of rhetoric along with bloodshed. The dialogue between the pedantic Dr. Schultz and the curt Django exudes a charming camaraderie, whereas that among perplexed members of the Ku Klux Klan is improbably hilarious. Simply listening to Tarantino’s vibrant verbosity overrides most of Django’s sometimes inconsistent pacing, which tends to happen precisely because Tarantino loves to relish in his character’s conversations. We forgive him because he’s so good at what he does.
But craft is not the only issue at hand when considering Tarantino’s latest. As with his Inglourious Basterds, a movie about a posse of Nazi-hunting vigilante Jews that reveled in near-blasphemous levels of violence and a proud historical inaccuracy, Django plunges Tarantino once again into the hot waters of controversy. Though over a century and a half have passed since America’s age of slavery, some may consider the director insensitive, especially considering the vehemence of racial politics still present today.
The important thing to realize is that it’s unlikely Tarantino possesses a political agenda. His aim is fundamentally cultural. Shameful and disturbing as our history may be, it is our history nonetheless and has woven its way into the fabric of popular culture, to which Tarantino has responded with his own needle and thread. The entirety of Django functions like a picaresque comedy act starring an era that has always been touchy for contemporary audiences. What the film essentially tells us is, “Look, history happened this way, and it’s terrible. But hey, it can still make great cinema.”
If anything, his two films – Basterds and now Django – force us to come to terms with periods in history we are uncomfortable with (for what is comedy but the manipulation of uncomfortable situations?). Calling them progressive may be going too far, but the films do take an unusually ambivalent approach towards their subject matters. Consider how both movies involve each of their respective eras without necessarily being about those eras. Yes, Tarantino counts on our racial sensitivity to draw us into Django, but the movie isn’t so much about race as (hyper) representing a culture that has internalized the concept of race.
Take, for instance, Hollywood’s history of white male favoritism and Tokenism, and observe how Tarantino inverts our ingrained expectations. This may be getting technical, but notice the racial balance across the film’s major characters. Among our pair of protagonists, there is precisely one black character (Django) and one white character (Dr. Schultz). Among our main pair of villains, there is also precisely one black character (Stephen, played with spastic genius by Samuel L. Jackson) and one white character (Calvin Candie). It’s true that Django lacks any major female roles, but Kill Bill more than demonstrates that Tarantino is not averse to strong female protagonists.
Each of these characters occupies his place within the 1850’s slave culture albeit with a certain degree of self- awareness, but all transcend their stereotypes magnificently. For these characters are at heart Tarantino screen creations, governed not by history but by Tarantino’s artful pen. Rich dialogue and distinctive screen presences dominate the movie’s drama. Whether black or white, every character commands attention whenever they’re onscreen. Racial stigmas are glorified, satirized and turned on their heads, all in the name of producing a vivid moviegoing experience that channels American culture by way of Tarantino. He doesn’t want us to focus on race, but on him, and also ourselves. It’s a tad narcissistic, yes. But it’s also brilliant.