Matthias Schoenaerts steps out of the shadows, tilts his cowboy hat – then tries to fight a tank of a man for cash. From there, this preposterous western only ramps up the bloody chaos
By Rebecca Nicholson
March 1, 2023
The old saying has it that there are only two types of stories: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Django has a stranger come to town in classic fashion. This cinematic, sprawling 10-part series is “loosely inspired” by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 cult spaghetti western of the same name, and it offers a steady take on the genre, which is once again enjoying an on-screen revival.
Django is set in Texas in 1872, seven years after the end of the civil war, though we are reminded, with curious understatement, by a note at the beginning of the first episode that Black people in the south “continued to suffer harsh discrimination and violence”. Django himself (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking like a pre-court appearance Tommy Lee Royce) makes quite the entrance. He emerges from the shadows, looks up from beneath the brow of his tilted cowboy hat and offers to fight a tank of an Austrian man, bare-knuckled, for a substantial cash prize.
We are in New Babylon, a ramshackle city of wooden shacks built from the ground up by a former slave, John Ellis (a wonderfully grandstanding Nicholas Pinnock), and a young orphaned woman named Sarah (Dark’s Lisa Vicari). The city is a refuge for outcasts and outsiders, and a promised haven from “the demons that rule the world outside these walls”. Wealthy men pay to enter for the night, where they can eat, drink and be merry – and lose their money, willingly or not, for the privilege. “Let us entertain our rich guests and empty their pockets,” says Ellis, as the permanent residents raise their bottles to the sky.
In among the revelry, there is a bloody and ruthless story. The politics of New Babylon and its wider environs are fragile. It is not certain whether Ellis is a tyrant or a visionary, even to his own children. Whether Sarah wants to be there at all is also unclear. Putting her at the centre of the story seems like an attempt to update the western, but to begin with she is the least showy element of the drama. Slowly, very slowly, we learn more about why Django has travelled to this city in the first place, and it isn’t to pick up $100 for flattening a burly Austrian with his fists.
For a drama so defiantly gruesome and, eventually, action-packed, this begins at a crawl. There is a tangled web of relationships to unravel, across a couple of timelines, and the first 30 minutes or so appear dedicated to the art of brooding. Family ties, particularly those between fathers and their children, are fragile and complicated. Loyalties are chosen and discarded, as flashbacks explain who everyone is, what they mean to each other, and why they are in New Babylon in the first place.
It’s all very laboured, and risks becoming dreary as the mud and the rain and the brooding threaten to swallow it up. That is, until the arrival of a trio of mysterious black-costumed bandits who do not take kindly to a local brothel and its patrons. Their leader, Elizabeth (an acrobatically accented Noomi Rapace), makes it clear that her holy wrath knows no limits. She is “spreading the Lord’s word on Earth” and her fundamentalism is furious, violent and pitiless. It also requires her to self-flagellate in an ice-cold bath. Her appearance kicks this show into life, giving Django and Ellis a common enemy and injecting much-needed pace and excitement.
Django pays tribute to its Italian ancestor. Though it is in English, it was jointly produced by four European production companies, was directed by Gomorrah’s Francesca Comencini, was largely shot in Romania, and has a mostly European cast, who speak with a great variety of accents. Some sound American, some German, some English, some French. It sort of makes sense if you don’t look too closely, and adds to the “everyone’s welcome” vibe of New Babylon, but it also gives it a distinctly Euro-Texan feel, a hybrid that takes a little getting used to.
From The English to 1883 to The Power of the Dog, there is clearly a renewed appetite for the western on screen, though there is a sense that these newer versions, at least the ones that have worked best, have modernised it. So far, Django feels traditional. It is preposterous and overblown and gory, but if you settle in for the long haul then there is potential in this stranger who has come to town to raise hell.
[I question whether a woman who probably never saw the original “Django” should be taken to seriously as she’s only reviewing this as film material. I haven’t seen the series so I can’t comment and I believe it’s up to each viewer to make up their own mind as to whether they like it or not. The main actor, whom I’m not familiar with, looks nothing like Franco Nero or the Django we’ve come to love. To me this is nothing more than a female directed WOKE western and it’s Django in name only. They may as well have named him Clyde. TB]
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