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From the moment we hear the first strains of the Scott
Walker-esque English version of the original DJANGO theme song, lifted
wholesale from Sergio Corbucci’s cult 1966 oater, set to images of a battered
chain gang of soul-broken slaves, we know we are in the hands of a master. And
make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is a master.
A master of quoting the familiar, and brazenly sculpting
movies that are entirely maverick in spirit, using pulp-trash culture as an
accessible vehicle to trot out original tales of human eccentricity. It has
been his beat from the beginning, and with every film, Tarantino improves on
that language, expanding his running times, mining history both real and reel
and creating breathless art that functions just fine as commercial
crowd-pleasers. Yes, a master. And yes, DJANGO UNCHAINED is a certifiable
But the question here is, is DJANGO UNCHAINED a horror film?
Sometimes it is. The film currently graces the cover of FANGORIA #319, for
reasons that are deeper than just the wanton gore that saturates a good deal of
the picture. The original DJANGO was arch and Gothic and, like the films of
Sergio Leone, a violent sidebar to the European horror and fantasy films that
were leaking out of Italy and elsewhere ad nauseam in the 1960s and ’70s. The
scores were interchangeable (hello, Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai!), the
casts and directors flitted freely between genres and that violent, leering,
yet romanticized and outrageously operatic aesthetic pounded its chest, be it
in a saloon or a spook house.
And of course, Tarantino loves horror films and Westerns as
much as he loves ever “low” genre, and all make their ways in and out of his
works. DJANGO UNCHAINED is his fevered salute to the films of Corbucci and Sam
Peckinpah, blaxploitation gems like SHAFT et al. and the myriad unofficial
DJANGO sequels. Make no mistake, however: This film is definitively its own
beast. And a beautiful, wooly, untamed one at that.
Back to that beginning, with the gaggle of tragic black
slaves being dragged across the scorching South while jagged, blood-red,
retro-Western fonts blast around the sweating, hirsute visage of our hero
Django, played with steely, rage-wired cool by Jamie Foxx, an anchoring turn
that is deceptively simple. Opening-credits sequences are a dying art, but
Tarantino has done much in his career to keep that art alive. No quickie
title-card blast here; coupled with that gloriously silly theme, DJANGO
UNCHAINED’s titles drag you in, making you smile at the sheer energy of the
When the film proper begins, a travelling dentist named Dr.
King Schultz (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’ Christoph Waltz in a magnetic performance,
and an apologetic inversion of that previous film’s thoroughly black-hearted
Landa) charmingly liberates Django and his brethren from the degenerate
masters. Schultz enlists Django to help him find the elusive Brittle Brothers,
a troika of sibling slave traders who have high prices on their heads. Schultz
is, in fact, a bounty hunter, and the rescued Django becomes his
more-than-willing sidekick, happily exacting his own personal revenge against
the endless landscape of sneering, white-skinned monsters and forging a
partnership with his liberator to help him track his wife Broomhilda (the
delicious Kerry Washington), who was tortured and torn from him and is now lost
somewhere deep within the Southern plantation hell.
The duo’s moody, often violent and very often funny quest
(how nice it is to see MIAMI VICE legend Don Johnson having a blast as a
bumbling dandy master named Big Daddy; more Johnson on screen please, the man
has always been a great presence) leads them to the stifling, repugnant lair of
the preening Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where the duo masquerade as
“Mandingo fighting” moguls looking for new stock. Without spoiling the
dynamite, serpentine second half of DJANGO UNCHAINED, let’s just say that
DiCaprio is top-drawer as a reptilian man-child villain who may or may not be
shagging his sister, and Samuel L. Jackson is electrifying as an evil Uncle
Tom, whose shuck-and-jive shtick masks his true role as family puppetmaster,
and there’s enough jaw-dropping splatter to fill 10 horror films.
Running almost three hours, DJANGO UNCHAINED never once
feels strained, and if you take to its rollercoaster rhythm, you might—like
this critic—be left wanting more. The devil is in Tarantino’s details,
including his typically deft use of existing and, in this case, often fresh pop
tunes to elicit emotion out of imagery that otherwise might not pack such
punches. My favorite is the soul-lifting use of a gentle, rambling Jim Croce
classic “I’ve Got a Name” over a winter riding montage lifted straight out of
Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE by way of Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE
KID and even Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Plus, Tarantino’s patented
employment of vintage Ennio Morricone music adds melodramatic heft. And of
course, at its core is that bouncy Tarantino dialogue, which is just music in
itself anyway—swaggering exchanges that dance out of his actors’ mouths like
abstract notes…like jazz.
The bottom line is that DJANGO UNCHAINED is f**king bad-ass,
a thrilling epic of gonzo entertainment that aims to please all audiences,
mainstream and fanboy alike, and succeeds better than any other film this year.
Watching Django obliterate his enemies is indeed a wet, red blast, and it is a
testament to Tarantino’s talent and virtuoso voodoo that underneath its
crowd-pleasing beats, lurks a legitimate glimpse into the horrors of America’s
past, and a stark reminder of just how vulgar a cocktail ignorance, wealth and
power are when left, well, unchained.
I cannot wait to see this film again. And again. And…
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