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Tarantino’s films sometimes include an element of bromance. Never quite like this.

Django Unchained is Tarantino doing a Western face-first. The influence of Westerns is everywhere in his work, and even if you didn’t know that you can still probably imagine what a Tarantino Western would be like. Close your eyes for a minute and dream of that movie. Django Unchained is that movie. Except it’s also not. What I mean by this is that it’s been called a ‘Southern’ due to the specificity of its setting and context.

Most Westerns, especially American ones, shy away from dealing with how African slaves were treated in the years prior to the Civil War. Django Unchained takes place a few years before emancipation and slavery is still very much a thing. Tarantino isn’t very interested in making pedantic movies, though. Even ones that are at least loosely historical, as Inglorious Basterds was. This movie is as big and broad as that one was, showing off some of the enhanced level of scale and scope that Tarantino has employed since Kill Bill. Instead of teaching us about the evils of slavery or the suffering of slaves, Tarantino weaves his way through various watershed elements of that “world” with his customary irreverence and matter-of-fact treatment of the full spectrum of human barbarity.

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Grand chemistry is enjoyed between the two leads.

Beyond being his take on the Western genre, and thus a movie unlike any other, Django Unchained is as fully a movie about “cool” as any Tarantino has ever made. Django (Jamie Foxx) feels like a paragon of cool, especially the BAMF type that Tarantino probably deserves much of the credit for creating (or at least transporting from the 70’s grindhouse where he found it). On the other end, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) feels like a very different kind of “Tarantino Protagonist”. Not to be overly reductive but there are common threads in the guy’s characterizations. While Django is the BAMF (and the movie knows he is, and plays it up to entertaining effect), Schultz is the talky sort of intellectual cool that I always more closely associate with Tarantino himself.

Waltz again shows an ease and panache for Tarantino’s dialogue that borders on uncanny. He’s so good but this is a bit offset by that his mannerisms and way of talking are very similar to Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. I like the idea that this is intentional and, honestly, with Tarantino one can not be certain. That said, it might simply be a weakness of casting the same guy in two roles where the language is similar. Some overlap might be unavoidable.

Foxx is always a great casting choice. He picks projects well and he always performs. It would have been nice to see Will Smith do this because he’s the only other dude on the list of people who were up for the role that I think is as versatile as Foxx. The fact that he is a chameleon, slipping easily from laconic badass to doing the moonwalk on horseback, is a great strength for a movie as tonally tuned as this one. If he was too much of a badass, he’d be remote. If he was having too much fun, he’d warp the tone of the film.

The best, though, is the easy chemistry that Foxx and Waltz have. Django Unchained is a pleasure to watch on any level, but there’s a special magic in watching Schultz take Django under his wing. Eventually, Django comes into his own and while we don’t get some easy montage to show how it happens, it’s sprinkled throughout the film in the dialogue, how he handles gunfights, and finally as he begins to take the lead during their last job together.

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This picture alone can’t quite convey how spectacularly violent the film is.

Django Unchained has the same love of language (it’s a talky movie) and defiance of conventional three-act structure as most, if not all, of Tarantino’s films. It’s long, at two hours and forty-five minutes, and it tends toward the episodic til something like halfway through. In this way it definitely reflects the old Westerns from which it was born. These are things that some people will complain about, the same misguided people who complained about the lack of battles in Basterds or the “boring dialogue” in Deathproof. It’s funny how people sometimes forget what it was that made them like the guy so much in the first place.

Anyways. Django is primarily about Schultz and its titular hero as bounty hunters, ranging across Texas and killing “white folks for money”. Eventually, they go off to search for Django’s enslaved wife. Both men have an appetite for theatricality and this gets them into a bit of trouble with Calvin Candie (a glorious Leonardo DiCaprio). Their duplicity seems unnecessary and I feel like this is a commentary on filmmaking, potentially on Tarantino’s proclivities especially. You see, Django and Schultz have adopted a schtick of concocting cover stories and “playing characters”. The character that they come up with for Django in the interest of getting his wife back is simultaneously him at his most badass and at his lowest. The first clue that this runs a bit deeper than the surface is that Django describes black slavers as “lowest of the low” and this is exactly who he is pretending to be at that point. That this affords him power, curiosity, and respect from those around him is a nuanced bit of commentary on the duality of that position. Tarantino may not be out to say something specific, but I think it’s significant that Django is at his most powerful when he is “joining” the white oppression.

The bigger and probably more obvious sign that this is about something else is that their plan is completely unnecessary. The idea is that buying one slave girl will not pique Candie’s interest and he is so big a player that they need to make their play big enough for him to notice. So they masquerade as a man of leisure looking to get into slave fighting. Django is his expert, and plays the part of the powerful black man so well that Candie takes more interest in him than in their offer to buy his third-best fighter for $12,000. The plan is to get Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as a side attraction.

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Foxx and Washington also played a married couple in Ray.

It seems that this big plan is a contrivance. It also seems that it’s meant to be noticed as such. Maybe Tarantino is saying that contrivances are what turn a simple transactions, like the $300 it would take to buy Broomhilda, into stories worth a movie. In any case, it’s Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin’s aged and seemingly deranged house slave, who sniffs out the ruse.

And this is where things get even more interesting. Candie, by this point, seems like a cruel bastard, but not especially so. His disregard for the humanity of his slaves seems like an extension of all the stuff we’ve already seen. Yes, it’s through Candie that we see horrors like D’Artagnan being eaten by a pack of dogs, or the Hot-box where runaways are stuffed, but it all feels natural to the world. Matter-of-course. Which is the entire point.

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A hammer is menacing, but Candie himself isn’t.

This is slammed home by that Candie doesn’t immediately murder Schultz or Django. For one, Schultz is a white man and Candie seems too Southern to go that far to turn the tables. Instead, he tries to have them pay the full $12,000 for Broomhilda. The deal seems to be going well and they actually have the money. Enter one of Tarantino’s trademark mounting-tension-conversations and the whole thing falls apart because Candie is simply too loathsome an exemplar of everything wrong with America in 1858 for Schultz to be willing to indulge his Southern manners. This is a beautiful, pointed reaction to everything Candie stands for. Candie is less a terror than a malignant cancer. His violence is a tantrum, his mannerisms a thin veil of what he thinks is “cool” (the francophile thing is perfect and, I feel, a potential and probably good-natured dig against Joseph Gordon-Levitt who dropped out of the film to go direct his own).

Speaking of JGL, actually, this feels like a good place to talk about why this review is at least half about Tarantino and whatever he’s up to behind the scenes. It’s difficult to talk about Tarantino movies without getting into this stuff. There are purists and populists who will review his movies only in terms of the content. I feel like that misses a lot of what makes them so fun and so damn worthwhile. Whether or not the Candie thing is a bit of fun at Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s expense, on the sly as it is, there are numerous examples of the meta-textual stuff Tarantino is so famous for. From the downright obscure like casting Amber Tamblyn as Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter (a web of references there) to the more obvious like Franco Nero’s “friendly participation” being that he’s the guy who originated the character of Django in a series of Spaghetti Westerns. There’s also the undeniably cool intentional Shaft connection. Tarantino said himself that Django and Broomhilda Von Shaft are intended to be the ancestors of Shaft himself. This is the kind of stuff you don’t need to know, that isn’t usually too direct in the movie itself, but that can’t help but enhance the experience. This is also sort of why I feel justified reading into little things like Candie being a francophone, or bigger things like why it’s significant that Django be at his most badass pretending to be something he hates.

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Jackson is frickin’ delightful in this movie.

Then there’s the mythological thing Tarantino plays with. When he hears the name Broomhilda, Schultz thinks of a version of the Nibelungenleid wherein a hero named Siegfried rescues a princess named Brumhilda from a prison of flame. That Django is associated by a German with a traditionally Germanic hero is a big deal. He’s a black man, after all, and here’s Christoph Waltz last cast by Tarantino as an Arch-Nazi (themselves the Arch-racists of modern history) referring to a black dude as Siegfried. The context of this being what it is, it’s an amazing way to cheat the potential misstep of assigning a perennially white myth cycle to an African hero. Not only this but it’s puckish a gesture as any Tarantino has made in his career.

There will probably be a few people who call foul, seeing it on the surface as a small bit of whiting up Django’s own mythos. That sucks because QT is trying to make a point with just that movie, a point that pretty much pokes fun at the idea of “white myths” as per a somewhat complex relationship that such myths have with later German racism, soldered onto the context of this movie as an extension of the overriding issue.

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Classic Western shot.

There’s some extent to which my ignorance of the history of slavery in America makes me feel ill-equipped to talk about certain broader aspects of what Django Unchained may or may not be trying to do. Before it came out, there was much talk of it being a movie that wanted to deal up front with that long and dark specter of that history without the usual sidesteps and equivocations that go along with it (this much I know from actually watching Westerns) in cinema. This sort of makes it the anti-Lincoln which has exactly one African character and she’s the weakest character in the film (being there primarily to pander). Whatever the truth in history, and other people will have to discuss that, there is at least that Django Unchained feels bold about the subject.

Any QT film is an event met with great anticipation. Django Unchained is a surprise wrapped in the usual enigma that surrounds Tarantino’s projects. So many details were talked about, leaked, and marketed that even I (who follows this shit) went into this expecting a number of things to happen that didn’t, expecting a number of actors to be there that weren’t, and not expecting 100 much more cool things that were actually there. Same thing happened with Inglorious Basterds.

Nowadays I expect Tarantino movies to be a surprise and always a pleasant one. If you expect that, you’re in for fun like only Tarantino does it.

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And, you know, these clothes.

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