I must admit to admiring the audacity (or perversity) of opening Django Unchained on Christmas Day, as Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent blaxploitation spaghetti-western-homage is about as unlikely a holiday movie as I’ve ever seen. True Grit, which was a Christmas Day western gift a couple of years ago, had some imagery and themes consistent with its holiday release day (even if Rooster Cogburn was hardly a typical holiday movie character). With excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as the film’s bounty hunter heroes, and a delightfully crazed and comic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio as villainous slaveholder Calvin Candie, and a filmmaking style that is so over the top that you can’t even see the top that the film is way over because you are up so high, Django Unchained is certainly one of the more interesting westerns to come out in a while, and one that is brave enough to cast an African American hero at its center, and brave enough as well not to gloss over the brutality of slavery in the way that so many other “southern” westerns have. And unlike other “southerns,” Hell on Wheels among them, Django Unchained is not so enamoured with the cowboy with romantic southern roots as to make him the hero (even as such westerns simultaneously play up the southern roots and downplay the connection to slaveholding). The southerners in this western are not the heroes, and that is a revision that the western has long needed to make.
There are 6 quarts of blood in the human body. Each time someone is shot in Django Unchained, it seems like the full 6 quarts comes flying out and splashing around the movie screen. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he wanted to bring an “operatic” style to the violence, and, I suppose that might be the case if Herschel Gordon Lewis were an opera director.
One of my favorite parts of the film is the wagon that bounty hunter King Schultz—disguised as a dentist—travels in, topped as it is by a large human tooth on a spring. As the tooth wobbles back and forth, the spring squeaks in a rhythmic way, and I suspect this is an homage to the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, with its squeaking windmill (and, indeed, Tarantino may even have lifted that sound from Leone’s movie as the source of his squeaking tooth noise). Another reason that I love that tooth is that it seems to comment on what I’ve started to referring to as the “dental revisionism” of the contemporary western. As we all know, the perfect teeth of contemporary actors have little in common with the teeth of the 19th century characters they play in westerns, and there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to “correct” the dentally inaccurate portrayals in earlier generations of westerns. They have been doing so by using dental prosthetics to reflect the poor quality of dental care in the Old West. And, in every film that I’ve seen, the revisionist corrections done in the name of realism have been anything but realistic. My first thought on seeing an actor smile to reveal enough moss to make an “Old Manse” feel jealous is not, “wow, what an attention to realistic detail,” but, “wow, that looks really fake.” The giant tooth bobbing up and down atop the wagon is a more realistic looking tooth than most of the prosthetics that I’ve seen. And if Tarantino didn’t then indulge in the same sort of dental revisionism via prosthetic teeth that I’ve seen in far too many movies, I might suspect a sly commentary on the practice. To Django Unchained‘s credit, the prosthetics show more restraint than almost anything else in the film, and none of the mouths quite reach the absurdity of Walton Goggins’s ridiculously bad teeth in Cowboys and Aliens (which remains my nominee for the Prosthetic Teeth Hall of Fame). (See Cowboys, Aliens, and Prosthetic Teeth.)
Although the civilized and educated King Schultz is in many ways just the opposite of Rooster Cogburn, he fulfills somewhat of the same role as Cogburn in True Grit. As a gun for hire, or a lawman for hire, Cogburn suggests that there’s a fuzzy line between a Marshal and a bounty hunter. Schultz plays the experienced bounty hunter to Foxx’s Django, who takes on the Mattie Ross role, learning the ropes from Schultz. Among the differences, the path that Shultz and Django take moves from one frontier to another, from the story of western bounty hunting into the world of plantation slavery, one with which Django (a slave whose freedom is purchased by Schultz) is intimately familiar. As the film shifts in its second half from the bounty hunter story to the infiltration of Candie’s plantation (“Candie Land”), Foxx shifts roles in a way that Mattie does not—as he is the expert on negotiating this particular violent frontier.
With its two bounty hunters (as well as its revenge/rescue plot), Django Unchained reminds me a little of For a Few Dollars More, which I watched again fairly recently, and was somewhat surprised by the high body count in the film (especially when many of those body’s are loaded onto a wagon at the end to be carried in for their bounties). I don’t know of anyone has done a body count yet for Django, but it would probably take more higher math skill than I have. The question may finally be: which is higher? the body count or the number of times America’s most popular racial epithet gets used? As I said earlier, whether it’s the blood or the bad language, Django Unchained is a very unlikely holiday film. It is nonetheless a good action-packed western for those of us who prefer a showdown or two (or six) in our holiday films.