Blogging “Django Unchained” (The Texas Chapters)
Welcome to my insanely detailed series of posts about Django Unchained, containing all my thoughts and insights on Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning film. Some of you may remember me doing something similar for Black Swan in this space. Tarantino’s movie obsessed me just as much, and I saw many things upon third, fourth, and fifth viewings of his spaghetti Western/revenge thriller that I didn’t catch in time to include in my original review of the film or in my follow-up blog post. Furthermore, the film inspired a number of other writers to pen fascinating takes on both it and America’s racial history, so these posts will provide links to them. Now that the film is out on DVD this week, it’s a good time to do all this. As was the case two years ago, I must issue a SPOILER ALERT: These recaps will give away every plot development in the film. Strap yourselves in, everyone. Here we go.
• We open with a shot of a barren desert landscape and Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s theme music from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Western Django being played on the soundtrack. Before the opening credits, we’re given a close-up of the whip marks on the back of Django (Jamie Foxx), matching the ones on the backs of his fellow slaves, who are being led through the landscape. The opening credits come on the screen between the song’s first and second verses, with the word “Django” in sync with the male chorus singing the name, and the word “Unchained” appearing in sync with the crack of a whip. (The whip crack is not in the original song, by the way.) As was widely reported, Tarantino took Corbucci’s Django as his inspiration for this movie. The name originally comes from Django Reinhardt, the early 20th-century French jazz guitarist who was of Romani (Gypsy) descent. He was born with the first name of “Jean,” but rechristened himself “Django” after the Romani word meaning “I awake.” Seems appropriate to our story. (Corbucci probably took the name out of deference to the myth that Reinhardt had only one hand — in fact, Reinhardt’s left hand was deformed, but he had enough use of it to play. Corbucci’s Django triumphs in a climactic shootout despite having lost the use of both his hands.) The lyrics in Bacalov’s song ping with our Django’s situation: “Once you loved her, oh / Now you’ve lost her, oh / But you’ve lost her forever, Django.” We have no way of knowing this at the outset, but Django’s loss of his wife has pretty much broken him, and if circumstances don’t intervene, he probably goes to his fate quietly. Of course, circumstances do intervene. Whew, all this analysis, and nothing has happened in the movie yet! Let’s get moving.
• As the movie gets started proper, the number of slaves has dropped to five, either because of death or a sale. A title card explains that this is 1858, “two years before the Civil War.” Now, any middle schooler can tell you that the Civil War started in 1861, so either Tarantino can’t count, or this is a signal that we shouldn’t hold the movie to strict standards of historical accuracy. We’re in Texas somewhere, it’s in the dead of night, and it’s cold, as we see from the slaves’ breaths and their hunched-over posture as they’re wrapped up in rags that give them marginal protection from the weather. The slave in the front of the line is carrying a lantern, presumably so that he won’t trip as he walks — an injury would reduce his value on the market. The slavedrivers are two brothers named Ace and Dicky Speck, with Dicky (James Russo) riding in the front and Ace (James Remar) in the rear. Dicky holds them up as he sees the wagon in the distance, and Ace rides up. It is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), riding in on a wagon, bidding them good evening. Dicky cocks his rifle and calls out to him.
• You can click on my best-movie-dialogue-of-2012 post to see what transpires. When Ace bristles at Schultz’ use of the word “parley,” the dentist apologizes, but he doesn’t make an effort to use simpler language thereafter. He’s showing off — English is my second language, but I still speak it better than you yahoos.
• I notice that when Schultz shines the lantern in the slaves’ faces to get a look at them, all of them look away from the light except for Django (Jamie Foxx), who doesn’t react to the white man’s scrutiny. He looks numb, and not from the cold. Earlier, we saw the runaway “r” branded on his right cheek, but in this light we can see a scar on his forehead above his left eye and below it, a knife blow that got his face but not his eye. The “r” gets explained later, but this scar does not. Schultz interrogates Django about the Brittle brothers. Django names the brothers.
• Ace bristles even more at Schultz talking to Django as a person instead of a piece of merchandise. “Stop talking to him like that!” Schultz does more to provoke him, dropping the word “ascertain” and then counseling “Everybody calm down.” (If he really wanted to start something, he could’ve said, “Calm down, sir!”) When Ace decides he doesn’t like this foppish German and declares the slaves aren’t for sale, Schultz dismisses him: “Don’t be ridiculous!” That’s when Ace points his rifle at Schultz, which only makes the dentist ask him whether he got carried away with his dramatic gesture. As Ace says, “Last chance, fancy pants,” Schultz just says, “Oh, very well.” Then he drops the lantern, which darkens his face so that the Specks have a hard time seeing what he’s doing. The move buys him enough time to pull a revolver and shoot Ace in the head. Then he shoots Dicky’s horse in the head, and the animal goes down, carrying its rider with it and crushing Dicky’s leg underneath its massive body. Dicky screams like hell, as well he might.
• The slaves all jump, seeing a couple of white guys get shot. Schultz calmly goes over and picks up Ace’s rifle, with a lantern strung over the barrel to help him see where he might shoot. Schultz re-lights the lantern and then stands over Dicky, explaining that he shot the horse to avoid having to kill Dicky. Not surprisingly, Dicky isn’t mollified by this, and he screams and curses at Schultz. The doctor finishes his last question to Django, and when Django says he would indeed recognize the Brittle brothers, Schultz cries, “Sold, American!”, which has particular meaning here. Gee, it’s funny to think that if the Specks had simply let Django answer Schultz’ one last question, the whole deal might have gone off without a hitch. Then again, this is a Tarantino movie, and we do tend to expect bloodshed. I don’t think Schultz goes into this intending to kill the Specks, but he certainly isn’t broken up about having done so. I think he just doesn’t care about the welfare of two slavedrivers. I’m with him on that.
• As he’s counting out the money, Schultz hands Ace’s rifle to the slave behind Django. The poor devil looks totally confused by this. Schultz counts out $125 and drops the bills on the forehead of a mightily pissed-off Dicky, then flips him a coin (probably a $20 piece) for Ace’s horse. He then asks for a bill of sale from Dicky and is unsurprised to get rejected. The reason Schultz is going through all this is to keep on the right side of the law. Stealing a slave will probably get him hanged, but he’s all good from a legal standpoint buying Django from the dealer, even while he knows the dealer won’t live to use the money.
• Unsnapping the leg iron from Django, we see extensive chafing and scarring on his ankle from it. Schultz calls it a “nasty business,” then instructs Django to take Ace’s horse and his coat. Django also looks confused before he obeys. It’s the acting here that conveys how the institution of slavery has sapped the will of these African-Americans to rise up. Django throws off his rags, revealing the whip marks on his bare back, and Schultz looks surprised to see this. As Django goes over to the deceased Ace, Dicky shouts, “Nigger, don’t you touch my brother’s coat!” It’s the first, but by no means the last, use of the racial slur in this movie, and I’ll have more to say on that later. Django’s reaction to this is to walk over to Dicky and step on the dead horse’s body, making Dicky scream in more pain. The funny part of this is the way Django quickly scurries away afterwards, as if he’s afraid someone will punish him for this.
• Django gets up on the horse and also gets Ace’s boots and pants. (Initiative! I like it!) Now, I’m no expert on horses, but I do know that riding a horse isn’t something that an untrained person can simply do. I wonder where Django learned to handle a horse. By the way, the horse we see Django ride, a chestnut-colored mare with a white stripe down her nose, belongs to Jamie Foxx in real life. Her name is Cheetah, and his riding ability and relationship with the horse probably played a role in him being cast.
• Schultz stops by the remaining slaves and tosses them the key to their chains, offering them the choice between helping Dicky get to a doctor or gaining their freedom. The slaves watch him and Django ride off before they act. They don’t have to think too hard. They don’t even unshackle themselves as they advance on Dicky, who goes from trying to reason with them (“Blueberry, didn’t I give you my last apple?”) to bargaining with them (“Take me to the doc in El Paso, I’ll get you your freedom.”) to just shouting, “No! No, please!” Django tarries a bit on his horse as he watches the slaves kill Dicky. The rifle blast from close range produces a great splash of blood, as if someone with a water balloon filled with blood had thrown it down. This feels like Tarantinoid excess, but sometimes the most outrageous details of his movies are the ones that turn out to be real. I wonder if this is true. Are there any ballistics experts with a knowledge of 19th-century firearms who can answer this?
• Ennio Morricone’s “The Braying Mule” (from the film Two Mules for Sister Sara) plays as Schultz on his wagon and Django on his horse ride into the apparently fictitious town of Daughtrey, Texas early one morning. We get our first good look at the wagon, which is topped by a giant fake tooth mounted on a spring. It’s wobbling back and forth as the wagon moves. I remember cracking up the first time I saw this — this clownish detail is so typically Tarantino, a bit of humor in a grim situation. The good people of Daughtrey aren’t looking at this, though. Among the white people staring in disapproval are two men on a gallows with a noose, and the film switches to a vantage point from the scaffold, so that when Django rides past, his head passes through the loop of the noose. Nice, menacing touch.
• A doctor (Russ Tamblyn) steps out of his office while instructing a coughing young woman on how to take her medication. As Django rides by, both white people are thunderstruck. “It’s a nigger on a horse!” says the doctor. Schultz asks Django why everyone is staring, and Django responds, “They ain’t never seen no nigger on a horse before.” Now, this is one of Tarantino’s liberties with history. While many African-American slaves were unskilled labor in the antebellum South, quite a few others were prized for their skills in various disciplines, including the ability to raise, train, and handle horses. Thus, it wasn’t quite as unusual as this movie makes out for Southerners to see a black man riding a horse. Tarantino exaggerates this point to underscore our sense of African-Americans being powerless in this setting. Schultz tips his hat to two unsmiling bearded old men, and a young woman in her underthings (Amber Tamblyn) stares from an upstairs window in wonderment and perhaps a bit of delight. Amber Tamblyn is the real-life daughter of Russ Tamblyn. He’s best known for playing Riff in the 1961 film of West Side Story, but Tarantino casts him because of his starring role in the 1965 Western Son of Gunfighter, in which he plays a gunslinger avenging the murder of his father. He reprises that role here, while Amber plays “Daughter of Son of Gunfighter.” Amber is best known for starring in TV’s Joan of Arcadia. I always thought highly of her, especially her little-seen performance in the 2007 drama Stephanie Daley. I’m not sure why she isn’t working more.
• There’s a bit of dialogue that got cut from the film but made it onto the soundtrack CD, as Schultz asks Django whether it would offend people for a black man to walk into a bar with a white man. Once they establish that it would, Schultz tells Django (“After you!”) to walk in. You get the sense that this is how Tarantino goes about making movies — will it offend people? Then let’s do it!
• Back in the movie proper, Schultz walks into the bar, arm around an apprehensive-looking Django, tapping him on the arm and pointing to indicate that he should remove his hat when he’s indoors. Like Tarantino, Schultz is a student of manners. He offends people all the time, but he picks his spots about how he does it and why. He booms out, “Good morning, innkeeper! Two beers for two weary travelers!” The bartender (Kim Robillard) is up on a ladder putting oil in a ceiling lamp, and his back is to our heroes so that he doesn’t see them as he tells them that the bar will start serving in about an hour. When he does turn around, he immediately starts (and Tarantino indulges in one of his trademark zooms in), with the swaying lamp hitting him lightly in the back of the head. “What the hell do you think you’re doin’, boy? Get that nigger out of here!” he says. Schultz just stares at him, all innocent.
• We cut to the bartender running out of the bar, shouting for help. Schultz calls after him, “Remember, bring the sheriff, not the marshal!” He walks back into the bar, saying, “Alas! We must now act as our own bartender.” He offers Django a seat at one of the tables and walks behind the bar, while Django sits and puts his hat on the table. Django asks him, “What kind of dentist are you?” Schultz gives out this amused “Ha!” and explains that he’s actually a bounty hunter while pulling the tap and pouring two beers into glass steins for himself and Django, using a small wooden spatula to scrape the excess suds off the heads of the beers. The spatula has the logo of a Knickerbocker Beer company. Oddly, this is not a fictitious brand like the ones that crop up in Tarantino’s films. However, this is an anachronism — the beer didn’t start being made until the 20th century. I’m not a drinker, but cinematographer Robert Richardson photographs these beverages so gorgeously that I want one of these beers. Schultz carries the beers over to the table, sees that Django has put his hat on the table, and clucks at him to indicate that he should take it off. He sits down, hands one of the beers to Django, and toasts him in German (“Prost!”) as he clinks glasses. I love Richardson’s photography of this scene, with the drab colors of the set and the men’s costumes setting off the gold of the beer. Richardson came up with Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street, JFK) and has worked fruitfully with Martin Scorsese (Casino, The Aviator, Hugo). He also did a gorgeous photography job on Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love. However, his partnership with Tarantino on this, Inglourious Basterds, and the Kill Bill movies seems to be the best match for him.
• Schultz explains his profession to Django, saying, “Like slavery, [bounty hunting] is a flesh-for-cash business.” I have mixed feelings when movie characters point out stuff that I’m supposed to point out — I like being saved the trouble, but I also feel like, “Hey, that’s my job!” Anyway, Django doesn’t know what “bounty” means, so Schultz further explains that it’s a reward. “The badder they are, the bigger the reward! Which leads me to you.” Schultz says he hates slavery, but he needs to find the Brittle brothers, and since owning a slave who knows what they look like will help him, he’s “willing to let this slavery malarkey work to my benefit.” He adds, “Still, having said that, I feel guilty.” This line always gets a huge laugh because Waltz delivers it as if Schultz believes that feeling guilty absolves him. It doesn’t, but he goes a much longer way toward absolution when he makes Django a deal: freedom, the horse he rode in on, and $75 in exchange for riding with Schultz and helping him identify the Brittles. As he leans in and proposes the deal, we see two things. One, Christoph Waltz’ teeth are terribly crooked considering that his character is a dentist. Two, Foxx gets this look of steely determination for the first time in this movie as Django ponders helping Schultz kill the men who were so cruel to him, and we see how this human chattel is eventually going to be the hero of this piece. Django asks where they’re going. Schultz reports that he heard some of the brothers were overseeing on a plantation in Gatlinburg, Tenn., but he doesn’t know which one.
• As the sheriff (Don Stroud) walks by the window with a rifle slung over his shoulder, Schultz says, “And as if on cue, here comes the sheriff!” The lawman says, “Okay, boys. Fun’s over.” A longtime TV actor, Stroud is cast here because he starred in a 1970 movie called Angel Unchained, where he plays a biker who helps a bunch of hippies get revenge on some small-town rednecks. I haven’t seen this, but it sounds right up Tarantino’s alley, and the connection between the movies’ titles is plain to see.
• We cut to the sheriff walking calmly out of the bar and assuring the townsfolk, “The jokers will be gone soon.” As Django and Schultz walk out the front door, the sheriff turns to face them, with the rifle pointed in their direction (rather than directly at them), and says, “Why y’all gotta come into our town and start trouble? And scare all these nice people? Ain’t you got nothin’ better to do than to come into Bill Sharp’s town and show your ass?” Schultz isn’t listening to him, because he’s busy sliding a single-shot pistol hidden inside his sleeve on a small railing (much like the one Travis Bickle uses in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) into his hand and firing a tiny but damaging shot right into the sheriff’s gut. The sheriff drops the rifle, staggers backward, and falls to the ground, bleeding and grunting and probably wondering what just happened. “What did you just do to our sheriff?” asks the bartender, but Schultz simply reloads the pistol, walks around to a spot behind the fallen lawman’s head, and administers the coup de grâce. In the background, the townspeople have been standing motionless, but when the second shot rings out, one woman collapses into a faint while everybody else screams and runs. This shot always gets a laugh because it’s so artificial and yet so exquisitely timed. Tarantino doesn’t get enough credit for the way he directs background extras, but he got similar comedic use out of the nightclub dancers in Kill Bill Vol. 1, who need a moment before running out as a prelude to the Bride taking on O-Ren and her bodyguards. Schultz turns to the bartender, who has been standing off to the side and is frozen in place, and tells him, “Now you can get the marshal.” As the bartender runs off (again), Schultz walks back into the bar and signals Django to come with him. Django asks, “Can we just leave?” He’s probably thinking that maybe the reason the white doctor treats him so well might be that he’s just insane. But there is method to Schultz’ madness.
• The marshal (Tom Wopat, who’s best known for playing Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard) marches down the street issuing orders on deploying his deputies and their guns. He concludes with “Somebody get poor Bill out of the goddamn street!”
• There’s a shot of the marshal standing in the street while an impressive number of men and women behind him train their rifles at the door from behind buckboards, carriages, barrels, and from terraces and rooftops across the street from the saloon. The marshal stands with his hands on his belt and identifies himself as Gill Tatum, ordering our heroes to come out with their hands up. Holed up in the saloon, Schultz’ response to hearing that he’s talking to the marshal is “Na wunderbar!” (“So wonderful!”) He gets some paperwork in order as he yells out to the marshal that he’s willing to surrender. “I trust as a representative of the criminal justice system of the United States of America that I shan’t be shot down by either you or your deputies before I’ve had my day in court.” The marshal points out that that’s exactly what Schultz did to the sheriff. “Shot him down like a dog in the street.” Schultz says, “Yes! That’s exactly what I mean!” Tatum looks amused by the German’s chipper attitude — and really, why would he not be? — and agrees to his terms. “Ain’t no one’s gonna cheat the hangman in my town.” Schultz calls out “Fair enough,” and then tells Django in a low voice to let him do the talking. When he talks so well, why not?
• Django and Schultz walk out the front door of the saloon, hands raised above their heads. Schultz is without the coat where he had that single-shot pistol concealed, and he’s holding a warrant in his right hand. Once he establishes to Tatum that he’s unarmed, he says the following: “My name is Dr. King Schultz. Like yourself, marshal, I’m a servant of the court. The man lying dead in the dirt, who the good people of Daughtrey saw fit to elect as their sheriff, who went by the name of Bill Sharp, is actually a wanted outlaw by the name of Willard Peck, with a price on his head of $200. Now, that’s $200 dead or alive.” To the marshal’s disbelief, Schultz cites the warrant in his hand and encourages the marshal to wire Circuit Court judge Henry Allen Laudermilk of Austin and confirm all this. Behind the marshal, we hear deputies uncocking their guns and see them lowering their rifles and talking amongst themselves. Schultz then comes up with the capper, “In other words, marshal, you owe me $200.” Django can only let out an impressed, “I’ll be damned!”
• We get a shot of Schultz and Django riding through the countryside, while Morricone’s “Lo chiamavano King” plays. The Italian title translates to “His name was King,” which is indeed the first line of this song’s English-language lyrics. With its 1970s R&B stylings and African-American singers, the song sounds as if it were composed for this film, but it was in fact composed for a 1971 spaghetti Western called Lo chiamavano King, which probably inspired Tarantino to name his hero thus. (That, and being able to name the white guy “Dr. King.”) Schultz dominates these early proceedings, and Will Smith turned down the role of Django because he felt King did too much. The film may well have been a bigger hit had Smith starred in it, but you’d have to say the actor lost more by missing out. Anyway, I remember the first time I saw this movie four months ago, and these opening scenes made me think to myself, “It’s so much fun listening to Waltz deliver Tarantino’s dialogue!” The Austrian actor really chews on the filmmaker’s discursive dialogue as if it’s the best meal he’s ever had. Django will take his rightful prominence in good time, but for now, I leave you with a link to Waltz starring in the priceless Saturday Night Live parody of this movie, Djesus Uncrossed.