Some slant their glasses as they pour out their beer. Some pour it straight but fastidiously slow. Some others like their brew topped with foam. And then there are those — like a German dentist working as a highly efficient bounty hunter in the American South — fill their mugs to the top and then slice off the foam by the neck: in one swift motion, Dr King Schultz beheads his beer.
Routinely fascinating, every little thing Schultz does is magic: theatrically flamboyant and effectively surprising. Played marvellously by Christoph Waltz, Schultz uses loquacious language to flummox and to wheedle, to sneak and to stun. His gestures are deliberate and confounding in equal measure: he takes a fair while to wear his glasses and peer at the written word; he takes significantly less time to cave to temptation and shoot a man down. With a gun hidden, as it were, up his sleeve.
And as Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary new movie begins in the year 1858, the good doctor buys a slave called Django. As fortune (and filmmakers that believe all too gladly in legend) would have it, Django has a wife with a German name, her horrible story echoing the German folk tale of Brunhilde and Siegfried. Schultz says it isn’t every day that a German gets to help a real-life Siegfried, and feeling as he does some awkward guilt and misplaced responsibility towards Django, partners up with him to help him bring back his wife, his “Broomhilda” from her living hell, the worst slave plantation there is. The fireworks are obvious.
Yet Tarantino’s concoction is so much more than spaghetti, with an awful lot of red sauce and a far more enduring aftertaste. His explosive, inflammatory anti-bigotry crusade takes no prisoners as it shockingly and plainly tears away genteel notions of the antebellum south and presents it to us in all its grotesquerie. (Gone With The Wind, for one, can never feel the same again.) We are made to laugh at the ridiculousness of hooded racists on horses and savagely shown how slaves are treated while white men sit in their parlours musing on superiority. And looming above all is the grand villain of the piece, the monstrously silken Calvin Candie. With bowls of jellybeans for him in each room, the amusement-park name for his plantation — Candyland — not softening the sting of the whip on the backs of his slaves.
This is a brutally violent movie, yes. Men are ripped apart by rabid dogs, women are baked naked in sundrenched coffins, and the wealthy make spectacle — like in the 1975 movie Mandingo — by pitting slaves against each other in bouts of bloodsport. That said, the words are sharper, crueller, stormier still. A black maid is told to treat Django like a free man, but not, indeed not, like she would treat a white man. Broomhilda is “wheeled out” for Dr Schultz because she can speak German, and when she speaks a line of the language, the hostess’ eyes widen with disbelief. (“Astonishing”, Schultz remarks, his sarcasm uncharacteristically unhidden.) “Talented as they are in the kitchen,” Candie says icily, “from time to time, adult supervision is required.”
It is a wildly entertaining but bitterly sobering film, a film reflecting on past shame while stabbing at the remnants of racism that remain within. Tarantino’s last film, the revisionist-history masterpiece Inglorious Basterds (where Hitler is burned down by Jews in a movie theatre) was a far sexier and more stylised film; Django Unchained is cruder and less finessed, feeling more like a chokeslam than an elegant uppercut. There is style, certainly — and cinematographer Robert Richardson is quite the master, especially when photographing blood splattering onto unplucked cotton — but this is, above all else, an angry film. (An older character from the Tarantino Universe given to Bible quoting might have called the new film, quite simply, “righteous.”)
The performances are all larger than life, and universally thrilling. Jamie Foxx smoulders as Django, saving his swagger for when he finally deems himself deserving, all the while playing a more subdued character while everyone around him is wallowing in flash. Schultz hands him a beer and Django sips at it incredulously, trying to keep it together but unable to help curling his lips up into a half-smile: it is quite likely his first drink, and he nods with approval. His character — named after the hero from 1966’s Django, with that hero Franco Nero in a flawless cameo here — has to act as a black slaver, the sort of man he loathes more than anything, and this he does with a natural alacrity that borders on the frightening. At one point, establishing his authority, he calls a white cowboy ‘Moonlight’ and barks the words “that means you” to put him in his place, moments after big boss Calvin Candie has used the same words to one of his strongmen.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in turn, is magnificently mercurial as Candie, a blustery slave-owner, an articulate and slimily, devastatingly decorous Francophile who holds court with a chilling discourse on the misled ‘science’ of phrenology while sawing into a skull. As with Django but for purposes much shallower and self-gratifying, much of Candie’s behaviour — from his exaggerated bellows professing love for his sister to his meticulously chosen words — is an act, an attempt to create character and stay in it. He even snarls the word “splendid.” And when he holds a hammer in a bloodied hand, he makes the shivers come.
The only man who has the measure of Candie is his head slave, Stephen. Laying it on nightmarishly thick, Samuel L Jackson conjures up a truly fearsome character, the film’s most hideous takeaway. It is a sickeningly good performance, one that blurs the lines as effectively as Tarantino likes. Stephen controls the slaves with an iron grip while enjoying an unparalleled friendship with Candie, sipping brandy with him in his library, at least in private. In public, he stands by the master with dogged loyalty but never gives an inch more than he must: he might not know what the word ’panache’ means but grasps it swiftly and uses it perfectly soon enough.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, so much of Django Unchained is about words, words perfectly used and perfectly picked, words that actors like Waltz and Jackson take to a different level and words that, once used, can’t be replaced. Words that result in a couple of immaculate lines about d’Artagnan and Dumas, the single best bit of dialogue on screen in years.
And Django suffers only from the filmmaker not letting in enough of his own words.
Tarantino has spoken of his film scripts as novels in their own right, as scripts he works on till they are so good they should be able to stand alone and tempt him into not making them into movies. And they truly are: reading Tarantino is a very special pleasure, and I urge fans to look up the lushly-detailed screenplays he leaks regularly onto the Internet. And by that measure — because Tarantino is a genre onto himself — I find Django Unchained a far better script than it is a film.
And this isn’t merely a question of slavish loyalty (though the Basterds adaptation barely left out two scripted scenes while Django omits massive and vital chunks) but one of storytelling. Kerry Washington’s character Broomhilda suffers massively from losing her entire, wonderful backstory, for example. There are some positively frightening but stunning Candie moments in there that I hate to see unfilmed and while the argument can obviously be made about length, this is the man who made two Kill Bill movies. The format bows to the master and it must not be the other way around.
Most vitally though, Django stumbles in its final act because — unlike in the script — Django’s heroics are already showcased in the film well before the finale, and also because there is a gratuitous pre-climactic action flurry that — in terms of gallons of blood used — outsplatters the eventual climax and renders it less effective. Lighting the same powder-keg twice never works quite as well. (Oh, and then there’s a far-too-casual cameo from the director himself, using a peculiarly comical Australian accent. Tsk.)
But that, in terms of the big bloody picture, is nitpicking. Despite that final fanboy caveat, Django Unchained provides more entertainment than most genre films can dream of, and more of a wallop than the most ambitious of dramas. It is a vulgar, gorgeous, wild piece of untameable poetry (which mostly doesn’t rhyme, except when Schultz gleefully says “Candieee” like “whee!”) and there is, quite simply, no other film in the world like it. Drink up.
Rating: 4.5 stars
First published Rediff, March 22, 2013