The tenants of classic spaghetti westerns are found within all of Tarantino's work leading up to his latest film Django Unchained (2012) - his first actual western. Prior to this pre-Civil War flick, Inglourious Basterds (2009) was essentially a western set "once upon a time in Nazi occupied France". Basterds featured music by the legendary western composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly etc), a classic story of revenge, Mexican stand-offs, scalping, war-paint, dynamite, and bad Italian. What made Inglourious Basterds even more special was that it was a movie about the power of film (physically and metaphorically), and it is that below the surface layer that made Basterds not only entertaining but something greater than just an action comedy (these elements were also hallmarks of Tarantino's most famous film from 1994, Pulp Fiction). With Tarantino's love for cinema and infatuation with the western genre, Django Unchained feels like the film Tarantino was always bound to make yet something feels off.
Django Unchained follows a newly-freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter by the name of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as they travel together through the antebellum south in search of the Brittle brothers who are wanted dead or alive for stagecoach robbery and murder. Along the way, Django reveals to Schultz that he intends upon saving his wife from the roughest plantation in the south: Candyland. Coincidentally, Django's wife is named "Broomhilda" (Kerry Washington) which captures Dr. Schultz' attention since there is, as Schultz recounts, a German tale of a damsel in distress named Brynhildr (pronounced "Broomhilda") who was in need of a hero and was saved by the brave Siegfried. Schultz, admiring Django for being a "real-life Siegfried", decides that he will help his new bounty hunting accomplice in his quest. Thus begins the classic hero complex: a hero with a want, a damsel in distress, and a dragon that must be defeated. The dragon is a young and wild man (comparable to the unruly George Minafer in Orson Welles' 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons) in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), hence the name of his plantation "Candyland".
Upon arriving at Candyland, the film takes a vicious turn as the true relationship between slave owner and slave is depicted with shockingly real brutality. The merciless torture and unflinching murder of slaves in cruel and unusual ways is incredibly off-putting (as it should be). It is nothing about Calvin Candie's stature or demeanor that is frightening, but rather it is within his appetite for cruelty and violence that Candie becomes a menacing phantom of the everyman plantation owner (or every-plantation owner). The character of Candie makes slavery and slave owners despicable, but he also makes the people who stood idly by watching him commit his acts of hatred against his property for years just as guilty. The lukewarm are just as guilty, and are treated as such in this film as Django strikes vengeance upon the oppressors of African Americans with furious anger.
Dr. King Schultz becomes the white conscience of the film as he witnesses the gruesome murder of a slave who was too afraid to continue being forced to participate in "mandingo" fighting (a gladiator-esque fight to the death between one slave and another), and throughout the film he is haunted by the images of that murder. Like Travis Bickle in Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, Schultz feels empowered to "clean the streets" after witnessing all the horrible atrocities that take place on the plantation. Armed with a spring-extending gun in his sleeve, just like in Taxi Driver, he takes his own violent stand surprising his fellow white-man with a bullet to the chest.
The vicious turn that the narrative in Django takes is a twist that never occurs in Inglourious Basterds - a film about a squad of Jewish-American-soldiers on a mission to end WW2 early by scalping and beating all the Nazis in their path to death (including Hitler and his cronies), but we never see our protagonists get harmed. Had we seen images of the holocaust in the film, it would have been a much darker film and would have had a similar feel as Django Unchained in regards to the depiction of slavery. Django at times feels like a rehash of Basterds. It's racial revenge by the victims of oppression. Another key difference would be the degree of victimization that the protagonists experience in their respective films. In Basterds, the protagonists are indirectly affected by the evil of the Nazis as they have never experienced the cruelty of a concentration camp. However, In Django our protagonist is beaten and abused numerous times in the film (and so are his peers).
It's interesting that filmmaker Spike Lee is so opposed to Django Unchained, claiming that "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film." In all reality, Django Unchained feels like a companion piece to Spike Lee's breakthrough film Do The Right Thing (1989). In Do The Right Thing, the temperature and racial tensions are high in modern day Brooklyn as everyone gets fed up with each others' differences. At the end of the film, Mookie (Spike Lee) chooses to lead an angry mob of African Americans to burn down the Italian antagonist's pizzeria instead of killing the owner, and in which by burning the pizzeria down they are destroying the establishment that embodied the ideals of their opposition. Sure, Mookie chose the lesser of two evils (property destruction over murder), but these actions are reflected in Django Unchained as racial tensions escalate to a violent boiling point concluding in the destruction of the plantation.
This film is a major platform for discussion concerning the ethics of the characters and the history of our nation, but it didn't leave a nice taste in my mouth. The first half of the film is so rich in character and feels like a true western, but the second half (which begins with a mandingo fight) is marred with hip-hop music, brutality, and poor decisions. Characters choose to act violently, like their slave owners, instead of making peace - a conscious decision that Quentin Tarantino explained while on Charlie Rose on the 21st of December. It makes for great entertainment, but it brings to mind an interesting plot device that justifies brutality in Inglourious Basterds: it's an alternate reality. Basterds defies history by changing the way the second world war ended, where as Django stays within the bounds and confines of history (within a fictional narrative), but it makes the violence feel unnecessary. Revenge was not his mission: Django only wanted to save his wife from the dragon of slavery, but instead he stays around and kills everyone (all the lukewarm observers of cruelty and the remaining white plantation work hands). Sure, violence is a "trademark" of a Tarantino film, but it fails to serve the logic of the character of Django. Had Inglourious Basterds been a metaphor for American slavery hidden within the veils of a cinematically charged depiction of WW2, perhaps it would have been a greater vessel for this story, but it would have spoiled the charm of Basterds.
Frankly, Django Unchained isn't very enjoyable, and with all the issues within the film, Tarantino's predictable wit and humor can't save it. Lots of western imagery (not enough though), blood and guts (too much), and laughs - but it's a hesitant laugh.
My ranking: 3.5/5