Django Unchained, the latest film from visionary director Quentin Tarantino has now been released in the UK. The film tells the story of Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German bounty hunter and a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who set out to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio).
During the build up to the release of Django Unchained in the US over Christmas, a lot of journalists picked up on just how different this film is compared to Tarantino’s other films. The press have been asking ‘when is a Tarantino movie not a Tarantino movie?’ and their answer has been ‘when it’s Django Unchained’. After seeing Tarantino’s eighth film as a director, it still contains the fantastic stylish violence and action which no one else except Tarantino can do, however they do have a valid point as Django does feel different to other Tarantion films, and there are many reasons as to why one could argue that it does, which is what this article will be exploring in further detail.
Django Unchained is in fact the first film which has not been edited by Sally Menke due to her tragic death shortly after she completed Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino always said that Sally became him during the post-production process and that they had a very close professional bond whilst putting the film together in the edit suite. That magic has certainly disappeared as Fred Raskin doesn’t have the same skill as Sally and possibly not the same type of relationship with Tarantino as Menke did. The emotional connections with both the main and supporting characters are not present as they are in Kill Bill with The Bride and Jackie in Jackie Brown for example.
The findings of my audience research studies on Tarantino showed that fans love his characters as they tended to engage and connect with them on a human level, whilst they chatted about life and popular culture in a believable realistic way. The relationship between Foxx and Washington however is not convincing, as there’s no chemistry between the two actors. Neither do you feel any emotional connection with them, despite their strong performances. Surprisingly, the character of Broomhilda is underwritten, which is odd for a Tarantino film. It’s difficult to care for her despite the awful situations she is placed in, especially since recently Tarantino has been representing women very strongly as women who the audience admire (especially the three heroines in Death Proof). All of the above are the points where Tarantino crosses into standard Hollywood Blockbuster territory. Tarantino’s films tend not to represent women in such a poor and uncomplimentary style, even when the story is dominated by men (take a closer look at Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction for example). Worryingly Washington is presented as the female character who is simply there to be looked at and is the cliched damsel in distress who is waiting to be saved by her husband. If there were parts where she became more of a fighter and stood out from all of the other slaves she was working with, then she would have become one of Tarantino’s more memorable female characters.
Since this film is set in the 1800’s there are obviously very few conversations between the characters about cult movies, music, beefburgers and Madonna, instead conversations revolev about their backgrounds, the other people in the plot (for instance, Django talks a lot about his wife Bloomhilda whom he adores to Dr. King Schultz and points out to him that she is a native fellow German speaker like he is) and there is lots of comedic banter amongst all of the characters, which strikes a welcome change in Tarantino’s writing style (and could well be the reason why he recently won a Golden Globe for this particular script). One very interesting principle which Django highlights is that a new Tarantino authorial signature has emerged which is a linear narrative structure. Django doesn’t feature any of Tarantino’s trademark non-linear narratives as seen in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. This works very well and shows that Tarantino can write any type of narrative structure effectively at any length.
Tarantino is famous for both his creative inter-textual referencing (referencing other films) and most notably his self-inter textual referencing (referencing his own films). Surprisingly there’s not a lot of the latter going on in Django (Unlike for example, Death Proof), as I didn’t spot anyone smoking Apple cigarettes (Tarantino’s trademark fictional cigarette brand). However, there is no doubt that there is plenty of inter-textuality present; the film is in fact a dense inter- textual text with a lot more to it than meets the eye. Django Unchained isn’t strictly a remake of the original Django – the landmark film which spawned the Spaghetti Western genre – however there are a lot of references to this particular film, which Tarantino has openly acknowledged that he is a huge fan of. The fantastic opening song ‘Django’ which plays over the opening credits for the film is directly lifted from Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’ (1966), as is the font of the credits for Django Unchained, and finally Spaghetti Western legend and star of Django, Franco Nero, has a cameo role in the film.
Django isn’t the only Spaghetti Western which is referenced in the film; the white blizzard backdrop in Corbucci’s The Great Silence is referenced during a montage sequence in the film. In true Tarantino style not all of the references are obvious as some are very subtle. The bar which Django and Dr. King Schultz (played by the fantastic Christoph Waltz) is called Minnesota Clay which is also the name of a 1966 Corbucci Western. And finally, once again, in true Tarantino style he also references, as opposed to a film, a Spaghetti Western actor, this being Klaus Kinski. Kinski was a star of many Westerns including The Great Silence whom Dr. King Schultz is based on.
Coming from a Tarantino fan point of view, Django features shades of pure Tarantino brilliance and creative inter-textuality that only he can do. However it lacks the Tarantino sparkle which makes his films stand out from the many other auteurs to become instant memorable classics. The film feels often like nothing more than an entertaining and disposable Hollywood movie which Tarantino’s films simply shouldn’t be like – we watch a Tarantino movie because he stands out from the standard blockbuster.
There is no doubt that non-Tarantino fans will enjoy it as it’s so different, since it contains a linear narrative structure with an easy to follow plot and very little amounts of overly long dialogue sequences which are not filled with irrelevant references to popular culture. It will be interesting to see what Tarantino does next and who he collaborates with. One thing’s for sure, there’s no doubt it will be a fascinating film full of quirky references which students and cinephiles will talk about and analyse at length.
Written by Rebekah L. Smith