Upending the great American Western

Upending the great American Western

Django Unchained  
English (A) ¬¬¬¬
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo di Caprio
Director: Quentin Tarantino

To call Quentin Tarantino’s newest film Django Unchained a mere Western is not enough.

It can alternatively be described as an epic of a man seeking his lost wife, an examination of pre-American Civil War slavery, a study of violence, but a Western? That could be too limited a term for a director who has never been afraid to dream a little bigger.

The plot involves the story of an African-American slave, freed by a Teutonic bounty hunter, and set onto the path of his long-lost wife who has been resold into slavery, deep in the heart of the American south.

The slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), is sought out by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a moralistic bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. Schultz has a collectable bounty on three outlaw brothers — dead or alive — and is in a conundrum.

He knows where the brothers are, but does not know what they look like. Django, who once knew the men, is enlisted to help identify them — in exchange for freedom, $75 and a clue to his wife’s whereabouts. What follows is familiar territory, sparkling with imagery from The Searchers (1956), The Wild Bunch (1969), Oh Brother where art Thou? (2000) and the old Spaghetti Western films, including the 1966 classic which started it all, Django, starring Franco Nero.

In many ways, Django Unchained, like Tarantino’s earlier movies, is a cinematic equivalent of Wikipedia, leading viewers along unexpected links. One scene is even host to the title theme of 1983’s Under Fire, a film about combat journalists — a tune — it seems, which is not entirely unsuited to a Western.

Ideas and themes from other films proliferate at other moments but to take these collectively and accuse Tarantino of being talentless would be wrong. He is a savant of film, and his carefully pollinated scenes, a tribute and admiration of other works.  But while this movie is his finest in years, his plotline is the stuff of the quintessential Western.

In Regeneration through Violence, his fine character study of the mythology of the American frontier, Richard Slotkin argues that two essential figures dominate the Western genre: the captive (an innocent women subjugated by strong men) and the hunter who is obsessed with rescuing and protecting her honour, using violence.

These seem an integral part of Tarantino’s playbook. And there is much violence in this film — much of it vicariously thrilling. But what greater (guilty) pleasure can there be had than to watch the purveyors of injustice — albeit, cinematic wrongdoers — get their just rewards at the point of a gun?

As the movie reaches its summit, however, it becomes clear that the real entertainment of Django Unchained is only the violence. Like Lincoln (2013), Django Unchained examines the problem of slavery but leaves its viewers with no sense of catharsis and no moral tale to carry home.

Despite this failing, the film deserves to enter the Western canon for its brave, untarnished look at American slavery, even if there is too much outrageous gunplay and irreverent bloodshed along the way.

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