Breaking character: An analysis of Django Unchained
In a recent interview with Charlie
Rose, Quentin Tarantino says, “Almost all of my characters are really good
actors. They’re always playing a role. They’re always doing some sort of weird
undercover thing—they’re pretending to be somebody they’re not. They’re putting
on an act of some sort to get what they need done…And they pull it off with
Django Unchained, Tarantino’s latest piece of exaggerated historical fiction, is filled with characters of this nature: wanted murderers and thieves hiding out as farmers, overseers, and even sheriffs; poor slaves forcing smiles and laughs for their masters; bigoted southerners masking their faces with hilariously inadequate white bags; a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist, and a freed slave pretending to be a black slaver—all of them using their roles to achieve an end goal. When their goals conflict, it’s the degree with which they play their roles—and the degree to which they can expose their opponents’ true identities and intents—that determine whose goals are achieved.
Tarantino has assembled a marvelous cast to play these characters playing characters, particularly in Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Honestly, these actors would never require good direction to give good performances. Knowing this, Tarantino does something far more interesting—through his writing, he pits their performance styles, and performance histories, against each other’s. This competition of performance isn’t just for fun or for show; it’s a subtextual chess game of actors that enhances the story’s reliance on roleplaying—and of course, Tarantino’s the one moving all the pieces.
The first trace of this competition I noticed comes between Dr. Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, and Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Immediately before we meet Candie, an associate of his tells Dr. Schultz that Mr. Candie prefers being called “Monsieur Candie.” Schultz proceeds to show off a line or two in fluent French before the associate warns him not to actually speak French to Candie—“it embarrasses him,” since he can’t actually speak it.
At first I thought this was just a little inside joke from Tarantino on DiCaprio who can’t speak as many languages as Christoph Waltz. Before plucking Waltz out of nowhere to play Colonel Hans Landa in his previous movie Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino was interested in DiCaprio playing the part (source). While DiCaprio can speak a little German, I’m not sure he can speak fluent French and the little Italian required for the part, perhaps explaining why Tarantino went to seek out an older, German actor with more lingual skills. If DiCaprio could speak multiple languages, he would’ve taken the part of Landa, and most likely the Oscar that came with it—but alas old Christoph had ‘im beat, leaving Leo notably Oscar-less, despite his acting caliber.
With Django, Tarantino says, “Alright Leo, here’s another shot. But I’m gonna put you up against the best fucking actor I’ve ever found.” Actually, it’s a lot like those Mandingo fights Candie himself loves to watch. Knowing Tarantino’s eccentric persona and quite possibly cocaine-infused manner of expression, I can picture him practically frothing at the mouth, just reveling over the idea of pitting two of the greatest actors of the decade up against each other.
Now, I don’t mean to say this is just some sort of game for Quentin (or that he does cocaine, I really have no idea). And it’s far more than a little inside joke. He actually works Waltz’s and DiCaprio’s subtextual battle into the fabric of their characters’ onscreen good vs. evil conflict. However, Tarantino gives DiCaprio a little help by working Samuel L Jackson’s Stephen the House Slave into the game, as a sort of rook who castles DiCaprio’s king.
Before Candie makes a bad deal with Schultz and Django to sell Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s wife, for cheap, Stephen pulls him into the library to warn him. In his advice, Stephen goes into full-on Samuel L. Jackson mode: “Dem motherfuckers are playin’ your ass for a fool.” The seriousness of his tone actually goes against Stephen’s typical character of the Uncle Tom-style happy slave. Stephen’s apparent break of character reminds us first that Jackson’s performance in Django is one of true skill. Playing the whitest black guy in the movie isn’t typically Sammy J’s bag, and it’s such a silly style, we almost forget how good of a performance it is. It also reminds us of his treasured acting history—we see echoes of his role as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, which is the kind of badass attitude for which Jackson is typically known. Since Jackson is basically old enough to be DiCaprio’s dad (well, if Leo was black…), DiCaprio probably grew up watching Jackson in films. Fittingly, as Stephen advises Candie on what to do about Schultz and Django, a father-son relationship is revealed. It’s almost as if Jackson, the more experienced but less decorated actor, advises DiCaprio. So even though Candie is technically the master, it’s Stephen who’s in charge—and despite the acclaim DiCaprio’s received, the older Jackson still has plenty to teach him.
Almost every scene Waltz and DiCaprio share is a subtle battle of wits and persuasion, but two scenes at the end best demonstrate the difference and interaction between Waltz’s humorous, sharp-tongued performance style and DiCaprio’s emotionally driven style. The first scene is immediately after Stephen’s warning. Candie comes back out, and gives a chilling explanation of phrenology—an unproven scientific justification for slavery based on the shape of the human skull. It’s total B.S., but he delivers it so well, you can’t help but be sucked in. Just when you’re pulled in close, DiCaprio explodes, slamming his hand against the table so hard he actually cuts his hand (yes, that’s his actual blood). Of course, Quentin keeps rolling, knowing what acting gold he’s got. Candie’s face twists into one of pure villainy, and he screams at the top of his lungs, threatening to bash in Broomhilda’s skull with a hammer to give a proper demonstration of phrenology. Candie brings out his men, and turns the tables on Schultz and Django. And with that one performance, Candie gets what he wants—Schultz signs a deal for Broomhilda at the “ridiculous price” of $12,000 dollars, and we think everything is over. It’s one of the most intense and well-done scenes in the film, and while we resent Candie’s despicable actions, we can’t help but be impressed by DiCaprio’s performance.
Schultz doesn’t take this lightly, and in the next scene, while Broomhilda’s papers are being signed, he gives a final example of his staccato and sharp-tongued performance. Candie notices Schultz reflecting in the library. When accused of being a sore loser, Schultz responds instead that he was thinking of the man who was ripped apart by Candie’s dogs earlier in the day—a man who shares a name, d’Artagnan, with the lead character of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Schultz thinks Dumas would never approve of what the dogs did to that man. When Candie says it’s because Dumas is a “soft-hearted Frenchie,” Schultz replies, “No. It’s because Alexandre Dumas is black,” making it the second time Candie is outwitted in the library. Schultz’ smart performance is frequently reminiscent of Landa from Basterds. You know you all loved Landa—you just hated the fact that he was a Nazi. Making Waltz the good guy allows us to finally give in completely to his charm and also serves as a subconscious reminder as to why we loved this actor in the first place—he’s just too damn good!
Unwilling to let Schultz have the last word, Candie demands a handshake to seal the deal—a smug attempt to get Schultz to admit defeat. As Candie reaches out his hand, Schultz pulls out his pistol and shoots him in the heart. Immediately, one of Candie’s associates shoots Schultz with a shotgun. Both actors leave the film at the same time. If one had outlasted the other, I’d say that one would’ve “won” the movie. But Quentin leaves it genuinely undecided, instead saying: “Let’s see what happens at the mother-fucking Oscars.”
And wouldn’t you know it, Waltz and DiCaprio are both nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes (we’ll see about the Oscars).
After these two powerhouses leave the film, what’s left for Jamie Foxx as Django? It’s important to note that an earlier conversation between Schultz and Django is the primary evidence for the importance of performance in the film. As they prepare to venture into the plantation owned by “Big Daddy” (Don Johnson), Schultz informs Django that he’s about to create an act. That Django will “play a character,”—“the character of the valet,” and it’s important that he not “break character” in order to maintain their cover and look for the Brittle Brothers. As part of this character, Schultz allows Django to choose his costume.
What follows is a hilarious cut to Django riding a horse with a ridiculous blue suit on. This is another seemingly silly moment that’s actually very important. Django goes through a number of distinctive costume changes throughout the movie that represent a shift in his acting style. From the rags and chains he wears in the first scene to the full-on cowboy getup he wears as him and Schultz ride out for a winter of bounty hunting, Django goes from the slave who can barely read a handbill out loud, to the Spaghetti Western hero that tricks his white imprisoners with his eloquent persuasion, drawing from Waltz’s own acting style. This transformation is brilliant, but so subtle it doesn’t draw as much attention as Waltz’s and DiCaprio’s distinctive styles, and thus Foxx’s performance probably won’t receive much awards attention this year.
But that’s okay.
Anyone remember the 2005 Academy Awards? That was the year Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for arguably his best lead performance to date, as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. I thought there was no way Leo couldn’t get the Oscar—what an astounding performance (and I think Django is his best since). I was trying to think back to who won it that year. A little research later reveals it was none other than Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray.
Arguably, Django plays the toughest role of them all—the black slaver, a traitor to his race. He “gets dirtier” than any of the other characters playing roles, even antagonizing Candie’s slaves, and allowing Candie to sick his dogs on d’Artagnan. So, when Foxx as Django dons Candie’s clothes, hat, and cigarette holder at the end of the film, and stands with his wife as the mansion explodes into tiny, fiery pieces, it feels deserved—as if he’s been the master all along. After all—he’s already got his trophy.
Wait, you thought this article was over? Sorry, I’m only giving you a false ending, just as Tarantino does in Django. Right after Schultz and Candie die, I thought the ending was imminent. I pictured Django shooting his way out of Candieland, grabbing Broomhilda, and riding off into the sunset.
Of course, Tarantino lives by defying audience expectations. Instead, we find Django captured, hanging upside down, naked. Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) comes in, about to clip off Django’s nuts, but Stephen stops him. He gives a long speech to Django about how in this circumstance clipping off someone’s nuts would be the expected and boring thing to do—how sending him to The LeQuint Dickey Mining Company would be a lot worse, having to break his back with work for the rest of his life. Jackson, Tarantino’s longtime acting regular, delivers a message directly from Tarantino that basically says, “Things are about to get a little more interesting.”
And lo and behold, as the scene shifts to Django and other slaves being shipped away, who else but Quentin himself gives a cameo as an (Australian?) employee of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company (the word LeQuint looks a lot like Quentin doesn’t it?). The cameo, and this scene, at first glance, come off as extraordinarily weird, almost pointless. However, this is when Django goes off the chain, and obtains dynamite to blow up Candie’s mansion and save Broomhilda, giving us a less expected, but exceptionally well-earned payoff.
But just where does that dynamite come from? None other than Tarantino’s character hands it to Django. Tarantino’s dynamite is what allows that mansion to blow up. Tarantino sticks himself in this scene at the end to remind everyone, “Okay, you’ve seen some insane performances, some crazy scenes—but this couldn’t have happened without ME. Without my writing, my direction, my vision—my dynamite!” He’s been the one moving the chess pieces. While at the end of the ‘first ending’ we’re all championing the actors, at the end of the second we can’t help but champion Tarantino. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction, when Tarantino cameos as Jimmy, who rattles off about how good his coffee is—how nobody needs to tell him how good his coffee is? Well, Tarantino knows how good his filmmaking is—he doesn’t need anyone to tell him so.
Check out Sam and Griff's thoughts on Django Unchained here.