The film worked so well for me because of the characters, which have more depth and development than most of Tarantino’s oeuvre. While there is no doubt they owe much to Western stock characters Schultz, Django and Candie step beyond the realm of Hollywood cypher and become characters in their own right. This is, in large part, aided by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. A lesser performance from any of these men might have left Django floundering under the weight of expectations and excessive violence. As it is all of them give the performance of their careers to date. DiCaprio’s turn as his first true villain, Monsieur Calvin Candie, is particularly arresting. He seems to completely inhabit the skin of the films most odious character and brings him to life with wonderful malice and complete cruelty. The story of DiCaprio cutting his hand during filming and continuing regardless is made thoroughly believable by his performance. The only flaw acting wise was Tarantino’s own pointless, ego stroking cameo.
Special praise ought to be given to Kerry Washington. She was remarkable and criminally underused as she was only on screen for about 15 minutes of a 2h45m film. I love her facial expressions – she can convey more with a look than many can in pages of dialogue. One of the enduring images of the film is her on a horse, smiling with her fingers in her ears waiting for the explosion.
Unlike other Tarantino movies, Django also isn’t too bogged down in how clever the cinematic references are. Though references litter the film they are additions and asides rather than the films raison d’etre. I have never seen a Spaghetti Western and my familiarisation with blaxsploitation begins and ends with Dolamite but I didn’t feel the lack of knowledge hampered me.
This film it is undoubtedly not for the faint of heart. Those who are squeamish or understandably disturbed by the consistent and frequent use of the n-word will want to give this a miss. The atrocities committed by white slave owners, though accurate are difficult to watch. For all this though, I didn’t find the violence or language gratuitous. It is threaded through the film, illustrating the extent to which careless violence against slaves and black people was a part of everyday life. People stop and stare in horror when they see Django riding on a horse, not when they allow dogs to tear a runaway slave apart. While other films about have been featured relatively bloodless depictions of slavery and choose to focus on the politics of it Django exposes the worst excesses of violence and horror that other films have tried to wallpaper over. Django’s revenge, when it finally comes, is all the more cathartic for it. If I were to take issue with anything it is the lack of support he receives from other slaves. The Candie Land slaves are curiously absent from his final explosive vengeance.
One of the successes of the film is its comedy. The dissonance felt when laughing at Stephen’s exaggerated mannerisms and comic obsequiousness only to be brought up short by the sight of two black slaves fighting to the death on the hardwood floors of a lavishly decorated billiards room at the behest of their masters who watch from the sofas calling encouragement and commands is intense and unsettling. It is more provocative than 2h45m of violence or even a mix of tragedy and violence. The humour reinforces the lack of compassion even more than the straightforward cruelty.
Tarantino’s film is unflinching in its characterisation of America’s antebellum Deep South. The film doesn’t even shy away from recognising the complicity of the Uncle Tom character, Stephen, whose position is much akin to favoured aging pet and whose loyalty to his masters overrides all else. If Tarantino occasionally revels too much in the extreme violence of his film it is not without cause – as Tarantino has pointed out, no film can be as monstrous as slavery itself was.