Last Saturday night I went for the first time to a drive in cinema here in Queensland, something which is not readily available in Ireland for obvious reasons, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. The films on show at our screen where Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django: Unchained‘ and Ruben Fleischer’s ‘Gangster Squad‘ (I’ll be looking at this film in a follow up post).
Well, the first film of the evening was the much anticipated ‘Django: Unchained‘ starring Jamie Foxx as the lead, Christoph Waltz as a German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (can he do any wrong in cinema at the moment?) and Leonardo DiCaprio (for me, the new DeNiro) as francophile Calvin Candie, a Mississippi plantation and slave owner who is partial to sending particular slaves that he owns into ‘Mandingo fights’ where two slaves fight to the death in a southern version of gladiatorial combat. This area of slavery is something many have questioned whether or not it even existed (probably didn’t) during the time of slavery, but it does form a key part in the plot. The paths of Django and Schultz cross at the beginning of the film when the former is being dragged in chains with other slaves by the Speck brothers. The latter requires the services of Django so that he may identify the Brittle brothers as Schultz does not know what they look like and thus would be unable to collect the bounty placed on there apprehension, dead or alive. He strikes a fairly simple deal with Django; if he helps him identify and kill the Brittle brothers he will grant Django his freedom.
Both Django and the Doctor work through the winter months collecting bounties, honing Django’s skills and also forming a friendship where Dr. Schultz feels compelled to aid Django in the pursuit of his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who speaks German (hence her name) and is employed as a ‘comfort girl’ at Candieland, Candie’s plantation. Further, owing to her name and the significance in Germanic folklore, Dr. Schultz feels a duty to assist Django.
Knowing Candie’s love of Mandingo fighters and the pride he has in the ‘stock’ he has acquired and nurtured, both Django and Dr. Shultz offer an insane amount so as to purchase one of Candie’s fighters. Why? Well Schultz realises that if they merely try and buy Broomhilda’s freedom from the outset Candie will try and exact a rather large and extortionate price, so they attempt to deceive him instead by using the purchase of one of Candie’s fighters for an exorbitant price as a smokescreen for their real intentions.
Candie, however, has in his employment one slave by the name of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who is in charge of running the household and he acts as Candie’s eyes and ears in the house. Stephen in many ways is the star of the show. Jackson puts in a performance where his character is easily one of the most sinister characters I have seen in a while. He is filled full of malevolent hate for other slaves or former slaves and treats Django Freeman with utter contempt. While all other slaves address Calvin as Monsieur Candie, Stephen just calls him plain old Calvin. He questions him in front of everyone, he gives him abuse and he knows he is far smarter and savvier than his owner ever will be. His owner’s house is his own house, he sits in the library in a high chair swigging expensive whiskey in front of an open fire and tells Candie that he’s being swindled, hoodwinked by Django and Schultz, that they’re there for ‘Hildie’.
I will not spoil the film for you as I would imagine that a lot of you have guessed large parts of what the plot is from the many trailers circulating at the moment, however, needless to say, the film is somewhat more complex and not as comical as the trailers may have you believe.
The film itself is not really a ‘western’ but a ‘southern’ as Tarantino himself noted many moons ago. Whilst I was not a massive fan of westerns when I was younger (I found them somewhat boring compared to science fiction or adventure films) as they dealt more with the past rather than progress and the future, I have started to appreciate them more as genre, the last one I viewed being ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford‘ which was pretty much an art house expression of the west and the James Brother gang operating in a post Civil War America. Django follows the typical story arc of perseverance against all the odds for love. It lifts the curtain on slavery and plantation operations and brings us face to face with how the complex functioned, where divide and conquer is used among the slaves with each being separated and commoditised and those who have attained a position of seniority or comfort looking down upon those working lesser or harder tasks. Candie himself asks us why don’t the slaves merely rise up and kill the plantation owners and the whites, something touched upon over at Bock the Robber where the paradox of oppressed people is discussed. Who knows why? Fear, jealousy, poor education and indoctrination could all play factors, that and a lack of access to weaponry, the list is endless in many ways but the main point is that Tarantino is able to touch on many parts of American history in this piece without his film being seen to be preachy or a ‘big issue’ movie. It is entertaining, gruesome and not for the faint hearted but I would thoroughly recommend you give it a view.