By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Django Unchained
DJANGO UNCHAINED (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Quentin Tarantino, 2012
Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained—his most entertaining movie since Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and sometimes a picture of almost inspired tastelessness—pulls us into a movie land that movie buff Tarantino knows well: the world of mid-to-late ’60s-early ’70s Italian spaghetti Westerns—a roost ruled by director Sergio Leone’s and star Clint Eastwood with their “Man With No Name” Trilogy, but also home to a variety of trashy offshoots by men with lesser names.
An outrageous but rousingly entertaining melodrama set in the Old West and the Old South of the nineteenth century, Django Unchained serves up not the history of our dreams, or our dreams of history, which is what John Ford and D. W. Griffith gave us, but the nightmare spaghetti Western history of Leone and his imitators, which is what we got in the crazier or more cultish movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Since Tarantino has called Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly his favorite movie, it’s not surprising that he chooses this approach (which he also used in his last picture, the wild WWII movie send-up Inglourious Basterds), or that he gives his new show the kind of wildly operatic style that was Leone’s hallmark: an eye-popping technique full of simmering machismo and tolling bells and epic showdowns and Mexican standoffs and explosive violence, and characterizations so lurid and unrestrained that the movie often seems to be poking fun at itself and us.
Tarantino’s latest offers what you might have expected: a lot of over-the-top-and-round-the-bend meta-fun. It’s a jocular, bloody madhouse of a movie that stomps on most notions of political correctness as if they were bugs: a movie, like most Tarantinos, fashioned from the remnants of other movies and moviemakers. Django Unchained takes its title from the sleazily baroque spaghetti oater Django directed by Sergio Corbucci—an Italian 1966 Leone knockoff that starred, as coffin-toting bounty hunter Django, the 1967 movie Camelot’s Lancelot, Franco Nero (who does a self-kidding cameo here in a bar scene).
And it’s about an African-American gunman-bounty hunter named Django (played stoically by Jamie Foxx), an embittered ex-slave and stone killer schooled by Dr. King Schultz, an expert German bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz, the wordy Nazi villain of Inglorious Basterds). And the final shootout, so bloody it might be misappropriated as NRA propaganda against the media, involves another knockoff, this time of Richard Fleischer’s 1975 antebellum sex-and-violence trash epic from Kyle Onstott’s novel “Mandingo,” showcasing some truly high grade screen villainy by Leonardo Di Caprio and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom would have stolen the movie if Waltz didn’t already have it stuffed in his back pocket.
It’s a typical Quentin Tarantino mad mixture: a sort of grand expansion of the kind of movies that used to be slapped together by producers, Italian and otherwise, whose motives were purely mercenary, and writers and directors of high but sometimes batty-looking style who would do practically anything to keep the audience awake. We’re in the West and the South, circa sometime around 1858. We’re also in TarantinoLand, where stylishly trashy old cult movies come back with a vengeance. So the dazzlingly eloquent German traveling dentist and bounty hunter Schultz confiscates and frees the quietly tough black slave Django (Jamie Foxx), whom he proceeds to teach the tricks of the man hunting trade. Schultz wants Django to help him track down some elusive bounty prey, Django‘s old acquaintances the Brittle brothers, murderous scum on whose heads fortunes are offered. Django, hellbent on revenge, wants to find his still enslaved wife, the German-speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). (Broomhilda supposedly refers to Brunhilde in the world of Wagnerian opera; it was also the name of a comic strip witch I dimly recall, which began in 1970.)
In the course of their search, interrupted by numerous cameos of erstwhile stars and mainstays of that great cinematic era, the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Schultz and Django wind up in the anti-bellum South on the elegant but barren-looking estate Candyland, insane domicile of the sadistic degenerate Southern Gentleman Calvin Candie (Di Caprio), whose affairs are actually run or advised by Stephen, a devilishly brilliant factotum disguised as an Uncle Tom. There, surrounded by affable bigots, Southern aristocratic, milk-faced semi-belles and persecuted African-American warriors and fighters, King and Django, pretend to be part of the local Mandingo slave trade, whetting Candie‘s depraved racist appetites.
They also discover Broomhilda, whom Candie and Stephen, perhaps mindful of the competition from Zero Dark Thirty, have tortured relentlessly. A massacre is in the offing, scored to great jangly torrents of old Ennio Morricone themes (and one new one), and those of his imitator-colleague Luis Bacalov—along with,earlier soundtrack backdrops of a little Richie Havens (“Oh Freedom“) and Jim Croce (“I Got a Name“ from The Last American Hero). We could have expected Morricone, and maybe even Bacalov, but my heart was warmed by the inclusion of Woodstock balladeer Havens, and of Croce, writer-singer of the classic working-class lament “Steadily Depressin’, Low-down, Mind-messin’ Workin’-at-the-Carwash Blues.”
I also found it amusing to see the small but nasty role played by Don Johnson as Big Daddy, or the cameos by everybody from Bruce Dern to Russ and Amber Tamblyn to Michael Parks to James Remar to Tom Wopat to Tarantino himself, as well as Tarantino’s cheerfully demented version of the Ku Klux Klan, shown as inept maniacs out to execute Schultz and Django, Klan-robed dimwits who repeatedly ride into each other (especially Jonah Hill), because the seamstress misplaced the eyeholes in their masks.
Name me one other American filmmaker who could peddle a project like that, at the budget this one commanded, or get somebody like Robert Richardson to shoot it and the late J. Michael Riva to design it, and hook practically any actor he wanted, except Will Smith, who turned down the part of Django. Unwisely. (Come on: Smith did a fiasco like Wild Wild West and he wouldn’t do this? ) You can say what you will about Django Unchained, but you can’t say it’s not, in the end, some kind of a deeply personal project, or that it doesn’t have something to say (often stingingly) about American racism and violence. Well, I guess you can say it; Hell, you can say almost anything you want about this show. Tarantino does.
He makes seemingly trashy movies, inspired by other trashier movies (and some good ones), stuffs his casts with the actors who often made some of those trashy movies (and some of the good ones), and sends up all the tawdry, culturally objectionable stuff they can dredge up. He takes something that might have been written directed by a Sergio Corbucci, a Fernando Di Leo or a Lucio Fulci, and gives it the kind of finicky attention to style you might expect from David Lean or Federico Fellini.
One of the great things about some trashy, unrestrained, magnificently awful movies—trash done with genius and shamelessness, is that they let you indulge your worst impulses, without suffering the usual consequences. That’s part of Tarantino‘s appeal. He opens up great veins of amusing garbage, with his hip encyclopedic take on movies, and then just doesn‘t censor himself. He makes us laugh, so we have a tendency we let him get away with murder. (I‘m not complaining about this, though I‘m in favor of gun control and registration of assault rifles and can understand people who feel queasy about this movie.) I like his pictures too, maybe not as much as I did at first. Django Unchained is probably his best overall picture since Jackie Brown—partly because it has his best overall dialogue since Jackie Brown, and one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths, which he doesn’t always exploit enough, is his gift for entertaining tough-guy dialogue.
Actually I thought Jamie Foxx got a little short-changed here, because he played the strong, silent Eastwood sort of role, and Waltz, Jackson and Di Caprio got most of the good lines. But maybe Foxx will have the last laugh, since…
SPOILER ALERT (roll-over to read)
…he survived, and they didn‘t.
END OF ALERT
Is Django entertaining? Indubitably, as King Schultz might say. Is Django offensive? Probably. Should we take it seriously? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Or, to be less wishy-washy, we should take the soul of this movie seriously, but not necessarily the body. We’ll leave that to the flesh-peddlers and violence hucksters and racists, who, in this movie, get their just desserts.