This year’s discussions of the Oscar nominations, especially before they were announced, centred on the notion of American history and managed somehow to suggest that this is both a very strange subject for mainstream movies to take on and something they do all the time. Slaves are freed in Lincoln, a slave takes operatic revenge in Django Unchained, Osama bin Laden is traced and killed in Zero Dark Thirty, Argo recounts an old secret mission in Iran. Is there a worry here? An act of national self-reassurance? An uneasy celebration of questionable moments? An easy celebration? Whatever the answers to these questions, they have nothing to do with Quentin Tarantino’s Django.
This is a violent and lurid movie lover’s movie, alternating fluently between comic-book massacres and brief, bleak reconstructions of actual horrors. It would be cruel if it could take itself as seriously as it sometimes seems to want to, and it’s hard to know whether its failure in this respect represents a missed chance or fine directorial judgment. For an hour or so, the film is as good as anything Tarantino has ever done – in my view this is very good indeed – and then it slips away into a dutiful and extended following out of its predictable storyline. There are still good moments and sequences, but they are stranded in plod. Before this switch the film was, precisely, not predictable or dutiful; it was quick, quirky, funny and obliquely alarming. At one point a character is said to have become the fastest gun in the South, and the joke points up the problem. When the film leaves the American South-West for the old Mississippi plantation, it gets lost. Our man is the fastest gun in the South, no doubt about it, and probably, if we are thinking of individuals, the killer with the most corpses to his credit. But this is a gag not a title. It’s like being world champion of boxing in a place where people do nothing but wrestle. Or it’s like trying to get John Wayne or Clint Eastwood to look persuasive in Gone with the Wind.
I’m not suggesting that Tarantino doesn’t know what he is doing, and he can certainly get jokes of this clashing kind to work for him. One of the film’s finest moments concerns the Texas Klan riding out for a night’s work of cleansing: torches, hoods, racing horses, a whole cavalcade swooping through the dark and coming up over a hill. Beautifully shot, as the whole movie is, by Robert Richardson, a welcome Oscar nominee. Then the riders pause. In spite of the apparent evidence of the previous shots, they can’t see. There is something wrong with the placing of the eyeholes in their hoods. They tear at the hoods, curse and quarrel, and the man whose wife has kindly made all the items clears off in a huff. The rest can’t decide whether to ride on to murder with their hoods off or give up the job as meaningless without the outfits. They decide to go for it, and many of them are blown up in a booby trap laid where they expected to find their victims. Quite apart from their incorrect racial views, these men are idiots. The joke recalls many situations in early Woody Allen movies, Take the Money and Run, for example, where the bank teller can’t read the handwriting in the robber’s threatening note, and indeed looks back to the conversation John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson have in Pulp Fiction when a victim’s brains are blown out semi-accidentally. ‘You probably went over a bump,’ Jackson says, and the men’s main worry is how to clean up the car they are riding in.
These are not trivial jokes, and they do connect to historical questions. But the questions are not about the historical big time, rather the reverse. They are about distraction, what history forgets, about the inability of human actors to strike the proper grand note. The whole of the first part of Django is based on this inability, in films, acting and real life, and on what bits of comic or dramatic management might help us see it and get along with it. The film opens on a fine western landscape and a sung ballad in the soundtrack, suggesting in the tritest possible terms that we are about to witness a moment in the life of a legend: Django. ‘The D is silent,’ as Jamie Foxx says to a sneering white man who wonders if this black fellow knows how to spell his name. Then we see two slave-drivers on horseback herding a small group of shackled men across the rocks and into a forest. It’s getting cold, the men have thin blankets, their breath freezes in the air. The procession pauses when a light appears among the trees, perched on an improbable cart waving a giant tooth above it. It belongs to Dr King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter, who wants to buy one of the slaves to help him identify felons. The actor is Christoph Waltz, who was so impeccably, horridly charming as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds; here, as a whimsical adventurer, deeply cynical before he turns morally sentimental, he carries the movie as far as it can go. He is full of surprises, which I won’t spoil by revealing now, but also (for a time) stylishly ruthless as a Tarantino hero should be – think back to Reservoir Dogs. When the conversation with the two slave-drivers turns unpleasant, that is, when they seem to be about to kill him, he smiles, shrugs, says, ‘Oh well,’ draws a pistol and shoots them both before their fingers can find their triggers. At this point he is the fastest gun in the South-West. He plucks Django/Foxx out of the chain, liberates the others, and the doctor and the slave set out to pick up some bounty. As they do, through a summer and a long winter, becoming partners rather than master and chattel. Waltz is intrigued by the fact that Foxx escaped from slavery with his wife Broomhilda, and that she can speak German. He tells him the story of Siegfried and the rescue of Brunhilde from the ring of fire. He also teaches him that you really do have to kill the bad guys if you want the money, even when you catch them doing something as harmless as ploughing a field with their son. Foxx learns the lesson, but there is a harder lesson to come, and this is where the film begins to waver, to fail to take the West into the South. The quest now is not for bounty but to find Foxx’s wife, and to release her from whatever captivity she has fallen into.
The difficulty is in reclaiming Kerry Washington, who plays Broomhilda, from Leonardo DiCaprio, whose property she has become. He owns a vast plantation, and is cast as a sort of Rhett Butler played for sadism rather than romance. He does this well, and with real zest, but he’s given too much time to develop a role that hasn’t got any development in it. He’s not interested in Broomhilda, only in the tough black men he buys as Mandingo fighters, but of course he’s not going to give any of his possessions away, male or female. Waltz hatches an elaborate plan to pretend to buy one of DiCaprio’s fighters and have Broomhilda thrown into the bargain. The plan requires – this is where Tarantino edges for a moment towards a Big Moral Question – that Foxx pretend to be a Mandingo connoisseur and the sort of badass black man who intrigues sporting white gents and whom even the mildest black folks have to hate. This act is the price he pays for his wife’s freedom – he calls it ‘getting dirty’ – and it involves for example doing nothing while a slave is being torn apart by dogs for the amusement of a bunch of drooling white men. This is too much even for the cool European Waltz, and DiCaprio comments on his reaction, noting too that Foxx by contrast seems unmoved. The situation allows him one of the movie’s great lines: ‘I’ve seen a few more Americans than he has.’
This whole scene is also hard to watch and hard to read, since Tarantino characteristically juxtaposes the ravening dogs and torn black body with a crowd of comic bystanders, half-witted rustics out of every urban American’s dream of the countryside. I don’t know whether the comedy allows some sort of escape from the horror or just ratchets it up. A risky collocation in any case, and not nearly as safe as the rest of the movie becomes.
Because of course Foxx has to rescue Broomhilda, and does – but not before he’s nearly been castrated by an evil foreman, and not before he’s killed the entire white population of the plantation. He burns the house down – this is the South, it’s what happens to all houses in fiction – and parades in front of the blaze on his horse, getting it to spin in circles and do a bit of dressage footwork. Broomhilda, now looking astonishingly like a contemporary model rather than a brutalised ex-slave, claps. Foxx puts on his dark glasses, slips his cigarette holder into his mouth, tips his hat, and turns himself into a silhouette of Eastwood in a Sergio Leone picture. Or of Franco Nero perhaps, who plays the title character in a 1966 Italian film called Django. It’s all right, nothing happened. Only a movie. Spaghetti Gothic.
There is a more disturbing figure lurking here, though, the one black person to die among the mountain of white men and women. This is Stephen, DiCaprio’s butler, amazingly played by Samuel L. Jackson. He is Uncle Tom’s Uncle Tom, by turns malevolent and lordly, grovelling and contemptuous. He is DiCaprio’s confidant and stooge, a sort of single-person fan club, but of course he is also the man in charge, the figure who has turned servility into an art of power. He hates, he must hate, the black man who becomes an undisguised avenger, and when he rumbles the trick that Waltz and Foxx are playing he promptly informs DiCaprio of it. Here is another of the film’s extraordinary moments. As Jackson tells his master what the white man is too stupid and vain to have seen, the magisterial slave sits in the library of the house, drink in hand, entirely comfortable, entirely at home. We know who the boss is here, whatever race and money may say. Foxx shoots both Jackson’s kneecaps to pieces and leaves him lying in the burning house before he proceeds to his iconic final pose. But what this man represents can’t be disposed of so readily. For a moment Tarantino asks us to consider the stealthy, quieter paths to revenge that his general fondness for apocalypse makes it so easy for us to forget.