Along comes Django Unchained (the ‘d’ is silent), his most recent exploration on that theme. Like all of his films, Django is a clever pastiche of the 20th century’s finest film tropes. Whereas more high-brow directors will reference Hellenic legends or Roman myths, Tarentino uses his films to cover blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns and kung fu classics.
Sergio Leone’s idiosyncratic Westerns of the 70s are the strongest influence here. From the Ennio Morricone score to the leaping zooms, not to mention the cartoonish blood spray, there is plenty of knowing style. That’s always been one of Tarentino’s trademarks – a visual feast filled with knowing nods and post-modern winks to other films. But sadly that’s all there’s been of late. Inglourious Basterds showed some signs of a return to the glory days of Pulp Fiction but like the Kill Bills and Grindhouse it was mostly form over content; style over substance.
Django Unchained is perhaps still a little guilty of that charge, but it’s by far his best since Pulp Fiction. This is down to the other thing which Tarentinto does well – damn cool dialogue. Zingers fly with the same speed as bullets- and far more frequently. Witty one-liners lead on to quotable exchanges between the many linguistically canny characters. Like Pulp Fiction, Tarentino has cast well. It’s a long film, but the many leads are so compelling you could happily sit for another hour.
Unlike Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained has a very straight forward narrative. The superb Christoph Waltz (who deserves his Golden Globe) plays an enigmatic dentist cum bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, who frees Jamie Foxx’s slave Django in the hope that he can help him track down some law-breakers for a mighty reward. The men bond and soon Django is helping as a bounty hunter. When Schultz discovers Django’s desire to find his missing wife he offers to help him rescue her from Leonardo di Caprio’s slave owner, Calvin Candie. The biggest hurdle to this comes in the form of Samuel L Jackson’s devious servant Stephen – a man more cruel to his fellow slaves than perhaps any white man.
The film has raised the dialogue about America’s slavery past with great success. Many scenes make for uncomfortable viewing. But none of it is handled lightly or glibly – a sin which the Kill Bills are guilty of. And unlike Inglourious Basterds’ shallow acts of revenge, Django Unchained tries to remain in the territory of reasoned revenge, like any of the great Westerns did.
Despite its impressive cast, entertaining script and white-hot acting, there are still many disquieting questions about whether revenge is right. For Tarentino, it’s obvious. Redemptive violence is logical. But it couldn’t be more contrary to the New Testament if it tried. And not just the NT- Psalm 23:5 says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” And not “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You place two shotguns under the table so I can blow their evil asses away.”
Revenge is obviously a strong human urge – which is why it’s so satisfying to see bad guys get their comeuppance in movies. Perhaps it’s fulfilling because in real life that’s rarely the case (yes bankers, we’re looking at you). Either way, revenge is anti-grace and incompatible with loving your enemies. Revenge is not the same as justice.