In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has created a new take on the epic hero myth and couched it in a western, set in the civil war-era US of plantation owners and Ku Klux Klansmen.
Django (Jamie Foxx), is a man enslaved during an inhuman time, exhausted by brutality, then reformed in the image of a German, but, universal myth; that of Siegfried, who walks through hellfire and breaks into a fortress to rescue his lover, Brynhild from imprisonment. The latter is also the namesake of Django’s wife, the malapropped, Broomhilda, played in a heart-rending performance by Kerry Washington.
We find Django exhausted and fearful, stumbling through a purgatory, rocky terrain as part of a chain gang, marshalled by two mounted slave traders. In a Grimm, dark woodland they run into a genial, well-dressed gentlemen with horse and cart, who is not all he seems. He is a “travelling dentist” who speaks with a German accent in a manner of flourishes – intellectual fencing that hides an unexpected and deadly skill. This is Dr King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), the man who will become Django’s guide on his quest to rescue Broomhilda from the possession of the cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played with exuberance by LeonardoDiCaprio) and his menacing, power-corrupted, social-climbing butler, Stephen (the ever-fantastic Samuel L Jackson).
I like that Tarantino plays the film straight with only a few of his trademark flashbacks, and that Django has his own resolve from the start. It does not need to be given to him, he only needs someone to mould and refine what is already there. So the man who was once a slave is always his own man, just one in a voluntary submission to a “master” of knowledge, instead of forced submission to a master of slaves. Schultz frees Django physically, but in choosing his own way, Django frees himself psychologically.
The film is violent, but stylistically so with comic fountains of red, corn syrup blood in the shoot-outs. The violence that has the greatest psychological effect – that of the whippings – Tarantino respectfully leaves free of gore, letting sound and the actor’s facial expressions work at our emotions for a more sobering effect. For these and similar scenes, much of the audience had their hands held to their face in a rictus of disbelief. It’s a skilled director who can make an audience laugh as well as veil them in a stony silence within concurrent scenes. However, there are also a few comic moments as Django fumbles towards his new identity. Indeed, Austin Powers may wonder if one of his suits is missing.
The near three-hour running time wasn’t an issue for me. The film is completely arresting as the story urges Django onward on his quest, the mythological structure means the audience can empathise with his struggle – the shared experience of suffering, love and a lust for retribution. When the payback comes, I defy anyone not to urge Django on and breathe the liberation of his controlled rage and self-determination, his reconstructed self exemplified by a proud show of horsemanship showing skill and discipline (from Foxx, who grew up on a ranch Texas).
This is a man who, having become his own master, will now answer to none.