Antya on Django Unchained
Disclaimer: possible spoilers if it matters to you in a Tarantino film, possible offensive words/epithets because they exist in the movie. I don’t even know, just throwing it out there.
Having been privy to endless discussions about the long masala tradition of our films, especially considering the overwrought analysis of the recent masala revival that has unfortunately plagued the Hindi film industry (unfortunate because most of these are such terrible efforts), it was a little disconcerting to realize that the most outrageously entertaining masala film that I have seen in a very long time was made by a pale goofy dude from Tennesse, USA. Especially since it is also a buddy movie, a revenge fantasy and a Spaghetti Western all rolled into one incongruously over the top, gory package. Not to mention it is a scathing critique of America’s shameful history of slavery, more so than most serious and even well-made films on the subject, not necessarily because it’s a better film, but because it’s the most innovative and unapologetic one.
Whether it’s the consistently wonderful cast of actors who all roll with their crazy director’s vision without reservation, the vibrant visuals, the thumping score, the crackling dialogue, the very obvious themes of the quiet sympathetic protagonist overcoming unimaginable adversities and sadistic villains and emerging successful in an action-packed climax literally riding off, not into the sunset, but into the dark night with his lady love, Tarantino’s latest effort is the best masala film you’ll see this side, or any side, of the Atlantic. Admittedly being a huge B-movie and Western tradition fan, Tarantino tips his hat to all those genres with glee. But here he goes further than he has ever gone before, moving forward on the path he started on with Inglorious Bastards. He uses his signature moves to tell the story of the despair and misery heaped onto an entire people for a long time in unflinching detail. For all the criticism of his films being too violent that Tarantino clearly doesn’t take seriously, he actually lays bare the hypocrisy of the culture that worships guns and idolizes action movie heroes but criticizes a film maker whose sheer brazenness makes it uncomfortable. The shootout sequences are filmed in an almost cartoonish manner with blood oozing out of the bodies in big spurts and they mostly generate laughter (or in one scene, evoke poetry, with cotton buds beautifully splattered with blood). You’ll know when you see the scenes that are really violent, because you will not be laughing. Those will make you squirm, avert your eyes, and feel physically sick. Such as when two black men are beating each other to a pulp in a Mandingo fight to the death, egged on by their white master; or the slave being ripped to shreds by the hunting dogs unleashed by said master when he refuses to fight any more; or the black slave girl punished for daring to try to escape by being thrown into ‘the box’, a grave-like locked pit dug out under the hot sun, which was one of the popular methods for ‘disciplining’ slaves. In fact, the most violent scene in the film doesn’t involve any physical violence at all. It involves a white slave-owner breaking open the carefully preserved skull of a dead slave who served three generations of the family and showing the guests at the dinner table the three dimples in the skull bone that correspond to the area of the brain most closely associated with submissiveness. No sanitized Gone With The Wind this.
Jamie Foxx is well-cast and aptly restrained as a slave Django, who is freed and partnered by a well-spoken but ruthless German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. Schultz played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is again brilliant and owns every scene he is in, turning the first hour of the movie into a one man show, right from his first introduction shot hilariously preceded by the shot of the kooky bobbletooth sitting atop his horse-carriage, the infamous tooth later turns out to be the Chekhov’s gun in this morality play. The relationship that develops between the unlikely partners, helped along by Schultz’s off-hand derision for the practice of slavery and the quick-study that his atypical former-slave disciple turns out to be, becomes the driving force behind the revenge fantasy that plays out in the second half when the partners go on a mission to rescue Django’s wife. The funniest sequence you have seen in any recent movie happens on a detour on their journey through a plantation where a bunch of white planation owners and workers set out to kill the black guy and the German ‘slave-lover’ but get distracted when a rolling-in-the-aisles-with-laughter-causing argument breaks out between them about the placement of the holes in their Ku Klux Klan masks, featuring Don Johnson and Jonah Hill in a couple of ticklish little cameos.
Their mission takes them to the plantation of the reptilian slave-owner and trader Calvin Candie, played to the hilt by Leonardo DiCaprio who digs into his role with scenery-chewing relish. He lives in a mansion that’s rich in an obviously vulgar way and is a Francophile who likes to be called Monsieur but doesn’t like to be made uncomfortable by people speaking French in his presence because he doesn’t know the language. I rolled my eyes when Samuel L Jackson appeared in prosthetically aging make-up as a self-loathing house-slave, in a “I cannot believe Tarantino is going to play that tired mammy stereotype” way. But I should have known better, as he turns the tables on the stereotype in the next 15 minutes. He is the most cruel man in this story filled with cruelty and single-minded in his focus on looking out for his master whom he loves more than anything. Jackson’s is the most surprising role and performance and his loyal slave/adoptive father/ relationship with DiCaprio is the most fascinating in a movie filled with complex interplay between characters. It is this relationship that throws a wrench into the rescue mission and eventually leads to the tad too long double-climax, which was my only issue with the movie.
But it is Tarantino’s party and all the other kids invited to his party have to play by his rules, so you can’t really complain that he brings out all his toys and throws them all over the floor right at the end as his personal catharsis, when the rest of the party has been so much fun. I cannot say much more about the social commentary in the film than what everybody has already said better than me. This is probably Tarantino’s most important film till date. But it didn’t really matter to me, as much as the fact that I had a huge grin on my face as I left the theater. And that hasn’t happened since The Artist. Make of that what you will.