Tarantino's Sentimental South

WATCH // MOVIE

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino

2012

When Quentin Tarantino called his new movie, Django Unchained, a ‘Southern’, it was more than just a glib remark. That’s because the Western is one of those film genres where location is so central that it contaminates everything it touches. Every great director who has mastered the Western has used images to build their own worlds: John Ford’s Monument Valley is a vast red desert, bereft of any civilisation or morality but that which the hero imposes upon the land; the sleepy hamlets of Sergei Leone’s spaghetti Westerns always explode into hellish labyrinths, a gunman hiding behind every window, leaping from every door; and Howard Hawk’s cattle drive across the American South is a hostile, savage journey that inexorably leads onwards to a slow-burning madness and self-annihilation.  But Tarantino’s location, the visualisation of his thoughts and ideas, is the South on the cusp of the Civil War, a land where civilisation has flourished, and the sons of the first pioneers have become both aristocratic and prosperous.

It’s not a place for the malevolent black and white morality of a Clint Eastwood, or the sombre stoicism of a John Wayne. The moral quandaries of this land can’t be solved by a kind word or a bullet to the brain. Unlike the West, in the South there is no freedom to breath, to think, the chains the slaves are forced to wear just the most outwards signs of the civilisation that ensnares everyone (yes, including the white people). 21st century audiences will probably jeer when Leonardo DiCaprio’s unctuous, psychopath Monsieur Candie smashes apart a former slave’s skull to prove via the ‘science’ of phrenology, why the people he keeps in destitute enslavement don’t rise up and kill him. We all know phrenology is mumbo jumbo so we gladly dismiss his assertions but we forget the original question, if phrenology is just quackery, then why don’t they rise up and tear apart Monsieur Candie?

Django Unchained is definitely Tarantino’s most sentimental movie. For a director who is adored by many for films which come heavy with the b-movie references but little, to nothing about life, Django Unchained seems in comparison almost weirdly poignant in its politics and emotional severity. In this movie Tarantino’s characters aren’t all quirky two-dimensional cut outs with snappy dialogue, some of them are well-rounded figures albeit with the same snappy dialogue. Jamie Foxx as Django does an impressive turn from diffident slave to sanguine bounty hunter, but Christopher Waltz’s performance as Django’s liberator and teacher is too mannered to be a proper conduit for the emotional gravitas the role requires. You get that feeling that inevitably happens every time you watch an actor in a post-Pulp Fiction Tarantino film, the internal thought ringing so clearly across their faces every time they mug for the camera and say another catchy quip: “I’m in a Tarantino movie, this is so cool!”

But to be fair Tarantino is cool, a coolness that is all a matter of style, not substance. Or so I thought until I watched Django Unchained. It’s not that Tarantino has changed tack, far from it. Old fans will delight in the humorous, detached way he depicts his violence, the long scenes with nothing much going on even as the dialogue ricochets off the walls. But if Inglourious Basterds offered a glimmer of darker themes more poignant than the subtext of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, Django Unchained is a nightmarish odyssey into the more macabre recesses of American history. You could almost say Tarantino has grown up, but then he ruins it with an exultant cameo of himself as an exploding Aussie slave trader and you can feel the relief ripple across the audience.  Tarantino may have grown wiser but he hasn’t forgotten the cardinal rule of all those spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films: that the movies should be fun.