Don’t you all have those tingling sensations when you watch certain films? Like when you are sitting in your chair, eating your supper, and suddenly the door knocks, and someone else opens it, and you know that it’s the mailman with just the thing that you ordered or wanted to receive? Don’t you all have that sensation? That you know that the thing that is coming is just right for you? Well, that’s how I felt when I knew that there was going to be a new Quentin Tarantino film, a western that revolves around the issue of slavery in the deep south of the United States, another revenge fantasy from Tarantino, another film in the same vein as ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) and I just freaking love that movie. Now, for some reason that I can just quickly acknowledge, I haven’t seen much westerns in my time of being a lover of film, and that’s mainly because it’s a dead genre for the most part (even if it’s having a small revival in the past 10 years, but not at the level that was before) and the other is that it’s mainly an american endeavour, as much as the best examples of the genre come from Italy, I still think that the ‘american’ aspect of the films are what turn off most young people overseas and on top of that, it’s a reality that we never thought that would be real. How many of you know kids who play cowboys? Not much, if there is any, I even doubt that westerns are part of what a kid would find exciting in movies nowadays, now I’m not telling you that this is good or bad, but it… exists. Now, with Tarantino making a western (a southern as he called it) he may be widening the possibilities of young moviegoers (like me and younger) to get into the genre of the guns and desert, yet at the same time I think that Tarantino’s principal motivation isn’t pastiche, as was in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) the last time.
But before that, let’s talk a bit about the plot. Django is a black slave that has been under severe circumstances, as most people of his race during those years in United States were, but specially him since he has recently lost his wife after a slave auction that split them up. But his luck is getting better as he gets the chance to fulfill the dream of his life: killing white people legally, for money, because he is bought back by a german immigrant who is a bounty hunter, he is looking for the Brittle brothers, some slave whippers who are being looked out by the county on criminal charges, and they are looked for dead or alive, and since Django knows them by sight, this bounty hunter (named Dr. King Schultz) makes him his companion and together they go on bounty hunting adventures in the countryside of the deep south of the states of the United States. How fun a movie like that could be? Well, it’s even more fun when we find out that there’s a way for Django to finally find his wife Broomhilde, who is under the ownership of Monsieur Calvin Candie, an american slavist with a taste for mandingo fights (fights among black musculous slaves). Here it’s the moment when the film shows its real colours, if you let me use that expression, when Django must disguise himself alongside Dr. Schultz as mandingo aficionados who are looking to buy the best mandingo ‘nigger’ from the state of Monsieur Candie. Of course this is spilled and filling with humour, seriousness, bloodshed, violence, frantic zooms, great cinematography, stupendous acting, great monologues and dialogues. What else could you ask for in a Tarantino film? Well, you could ask for a lot more, and you get it.
The thing is that, looking back on the great masterpiece that was ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009), there is one scene that stands out among the others, and I’m not talking about the best scene (it is one of the best, but still…), but the one that is the ‘most different’ of them all, and that’s because while the 2009 film was a pastiche of many genres and references, either literary or filmic or musical, it was still pretty much grounded down to the war genre of movies, as well as the exploitation, nevertheless, there is the scene at the bar when some of the Basterds are meeting up with Bridget von Hammersmarck, that the whole tone of the film shifts a bit and it turns into a great kinda original scene, but when in comparison to ‘Django Unchained’ (2012) it turns out to be a rehearsal for the themes and the genre that he would exploit later, as the gunshot that ensues, as well as the card games, the conversation, the angles, everything is lifted up from western movies, and the principal theme in that scene was the one of identity: every element in that particular moment of the film was related towards who we are, what we are, where are we from, from the most banal and to the most important elements of the whole particular scene, it’s a nice example of theming, and it’s a blast. You just have to watch the scene a couple of times to really take into account how much of it is about identity: the card game where everyone is taking another ‘personality’ and has to guess who they are by asking the others (what a fun game as well, to play in summer evenings), the whole accent endeavour where a german can know where you are from just by listening to the way you talk, the treats of hiding your own identity by speaking german, or how the signals get mixed up, how you as a new father have a distinct personality or treat when conflicted against adversity… and many other examples that can be found in those perfect minutes of film.
So in this script and film (something that he was prompted to do after not being able to finish a critical essay on italian spaguetti western… I can’t wait for his retirement and start reading his critical cinematical writing work) he expands these ideas about westerns and identities for two and a half hours (and even more according to the early cuts of the film, seen by some fellow filmmakers) for us to wonder and enjoy, it’s just wonderful the depth that he goes into when he cuts and films every scene, let’s just take one of the most ‘famous’ ones, the one where the proto-KKK has a discussion on the bags of their heads, the unique fact that is transversal to that scene and that connects it to the rest of the film is its theming about how they are trying to hide their identities, and there’s also a meta joke thrown in about how a famous (kinda) actor is thrown on in a role for a masked KKK member (Jonah Hill really surprises here in his tidbit role), again playing with the roles of identity and anonimity. Well, I guess the main thing about this movie is that even though identity is a large part of it, most of it it’s due to the fact that it’s a western, and westerns have always toyed with the idea of names (The Man with No Name, or Nobody changing his name into Trinity, or the other way around come to mind), reputation (a recent film like ‘Rango’ (2011) is telling of how that element is important to the genre, sure, among many other films), or how the past can change someone’s fate or how they are always carrying their past with them (either be a rope burn or the literal coffin carrying in the original ‘Django’ (1966), they carry an element that brings them presence and identity to people without even speaking a word). So here, Tarantino mixes up the usual tropes of the western with a particular element of it that he explored before in the mentioned scene from his last film, the issue of representation, performing or acting a role as a way of affirming or hiding one’s identity.
The whole film is plagued with references to the act of performance, either be literal, like when Dr. King Schultz asks Django to perform the role of his servant when they are looking for the Brittle brothers, or later when he is asked to play the role of a black slaver, the deepest in the barrel, and he specially emphasizes that he needs to play the part with the furious anger that he feels to that kind of people. Then there’s the character of Calvin Candie that plays a franco-phile without any actual knowledge of the french culture nor idiom, and as well he is playing a character hiding his ignorance under a shade of brilliance and acute ear for business, he truly comes into himself when he watches the mandingo fights. So, is Tarantino finally trying to tell us something with all these references to the covering of one’s identity through performance? Well, for those who watched the movie can see that the act of performance helps… for a while, it is not something that works always and it’s not something that will put you out of the water when you’re drowning, it will finally bring you down, as every one who’s had their identity hidden either by a character they are playing or a mask/hood, they are uncovered, end up dead or worse. Even our protagonist has to pay the price for playing a role, and even if he succeeds for the most part, he still has a lot of suffering to go through to pay for his sin of trying to negate who he really is, it is when he is finally liberated of the schemes is that he can finally succeed, and with the final shot he assures his possition towards the issue of his own race and how people from his own kind should react to the unjustices that comes from around, even from people that are near you in terms of the color of your skin.
Oh, of course there’s the whole thing about how this film not only pays tribute to the western genre, but also the blacksploitation, but that surely is a piece of cake that someone else can eat, I know little about the genre, and while interested, I didn’t have the chance to watch a movie for writing this review, take that as you want. Nominated to 5 Oscars, I think that this movie may end up with the best original screenplay, I’m predicting an upset and I think I’m right on the money.