Westerns haven’t died out as much as I thought they had, now I think about it. I mean, they did but they are still popping up around the place. I remember in “Argo” in a scene when they are trying to come up with a fake movie idea to cover up their plans to enter Iraq, they decided not to feature a horse because that would automatically make the film a western, and “nobody makes westerns anymore”. That was just after John Wayne had died, one of the kings of the genre back in its hay day. Now though, films like “3:10 to Yuma”, the “True Grit” remake from the Coen brothers, the overtly lengthily named “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and even “Rango” which is by all means a fine Western. These are all fine Westerns, but the beauty of “Django Unchained” is the way it truly brings us back to what a Western was and still can be. It’s not just about dusty brown backgrounds, small towns with saloons and a Sheriff with a star badge, though that is a big part of it. The nostalgia “Django” will bring to lovers of classic Westerns will be just one of the things that make the film truly great and in this day and age, unique.
This film bears little resemblance to the original “Django” movies starring Franco Nero as far as I can tell, though I admit to having not seen them. This time around, Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by a German bounty hunter — Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) to help him track down Django’s previous owners. The two eventually form a brief partnership, after which Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, from which he was separated by his previous owner. The plot overall is fairly simplistic, but don’t let that detract from how Quentin Tarantino actually handles it. The narrative structure and sheer cinematic prowess present here is stellar, Tarantino takes the Western genre and his innovative iteration is masterful.
“Django” is a Tarantino so it does have some quite significant violence, though it’s not something that is sustained throughout and it has the usual style we’ve come to expect from the Director. CGI blood is thankfully nowhere to be seen and the glorious squibs are back (a squib is when blood splatter is created using a miniature explosive device to simulate a gunshot wound) and better than ever. When there is a large shoot-out — and there surely is — we are treated to the liberal spray of the red stuff covers the walls like a child who has been left alone with Picasso’s work station. It’s violent but it’s handled in a way that it feels essential to the plot and the scene is so well filmed that the blood is given a purpose. When gore is handled with style as opposed to perversion, it can be used to stunning effect, and this is what we see.
Whilst recognisably Tarantinian, I can see people who weren’t previous fans of his taking a liking to this movie… perhaps. There is less of what turns people of about Tarantino: such as the conversations (though I usually disagree) being seemingly about nothing; he overly lengthy nature of some of his scenes and even the degree of thought needed to understand his films plot. “Django” features all of this just to a noticeably lesser extent and while I love all of these things, he still uses them enough for me to not feel estranged whilst also allowing for a movie that is just easier for the non film buff to sit down and watch. I’d like to add that not being a film buff or a fan of Tarantino is a bad thing in any such sense, just that this film might be better for those that don’t fall into either category.
“Django” creates more poignant scenes than 2013’s “Twelve Years a Slave” I feel. The film portrays Django’s wife getting lashed in a style that makes the scene far more vivid than the gritty realism in Steve McQueen’s Academy Award winning film. The beatings were genuinely hard to watch whereas in “Twelve Years” I never found it hard to watch what was unfolding in front of me, despite it’s horrific nature. Tarantino just understands how he can manipulate the camera to great effect, as if he can make any scene portray any emotion he wants with just a bit of editing. This, combined with his always conscientious choice in his films makes for the perfect example of the strengths of the medium of film. Movies can portray anything they like with a mixture of visuals, music, choreography and good old fashioned words. They are the elements that make up what film is and what it can be, and there aren’t many that fully understand how to manipulate the elements.
Christopher Waltz deservedly won the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor” for his role, and Jamie Foxx is also brilliant in his role. Leonardo Dicaprio gives one of the best performances of his career as Calvin Candie, a slave plantation owner and current possessor of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). In a stand out scene that will stay with him for his entire acting career, he breaks a glass on a table that really injures his hand. Blood is soon covering his hand but there are almost no camera cuts, Leo just carried on and he worked the blood into the scene by rubbing it on a slave’s face. THAT is what acting is, following the script is only part of it.
Tarantino’s next film, “The Hateful Eight” is also going to be a Western, we have “Django” to thank for his revisiting the genre. I eagerly await to see the results. Until then, I might work through my library of Sergio Leone and John Wayne classics. Thanks to movies like this, I have the ability to be born in the 90s and still experience the “Good old days”, something I’m eternally grateful for.