To be perfectly honest, the first official poster for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is primarily featured here because its reveal is something of an event. One doesn’t stare at this thing and marvel at its breathtaking design; it’s all about the art of the tease. It’s certainly somewhat impressive that the image needn’t have a title to get people jazzed—the name of cinema’s most revered pop auteur is magnetic enough. Like a cult answer to the superhero posters that simply brandish a gleaming logo, this one-sheet is both confident in and dependent upon Tarantino’s ardent fan base, its adamant minimalism validated by the need for something—anything—that’s officially linked to the production (two weeks ago, a rough and raw still of Christoph Waltz on set was visual crack for bloggers). The poster looks very Tarantino-esque, and it’s surely in the spirit of what we’ve come to know of the film (Jamie Foxx’s freed slave treks through the Deep South with Waltz’s doctor to face down Leo DiCaprio’s slave owner), but it largely feels like steak for the dogs, who’ve made no small announcement of their collective hunger.
Not even The Dark Knight Rises can boast as many graphically accomplished fan-made posters as Django Unchained can. Wired in to Tarantino’s throwback, reconstructionist aesthetic, amateur designers have concocted ads that could easily pass for the real thing, and many of their works have served as stand-in art for film sites also awaiting studio-backed imagery. There’s this character collage, made before Joseph Gordon-Levitt was forced to turn down the project; this wanted-poster creation, which may as well be sold in novelty shops; and this widely-referenced gem, which one could argue even inspired the finished product. The official art is cleaner by comparison, its dorm-room-wall potential echoing that of the immortal one-sheet for The Endless Summer. But is it really worth celebrating?
The poster’s finest quality is that, in all its simplicity, it is a frank and perfect visual merger of the themes the movie mashes up: slavery and western-movie gunslinging. Like Inglorious Basterds before it, Django Unchained is a retooling of an obscure, pulpy film (Sergio Corbuccci’s Django) that gives a stylized kick in the ass to history’s social ills. Basterds stuck a knife in the heart of the demonized Nazi, and Django Unchained will do the same for the 19th century southern bigot, the twist of the blade Tarantino’s way of unloading his personal politics. That one of the poster’s figures is sporting busted wrist shackles will likely go unnoticed to many viewers, as it’s such a drastically subtle detail. But most will probably catch the symbolism of the pair standing in as the next link in the chain, their placement underneath the broken edges suggesting a racial division despite a partnership. At least, that’s one theory. Heaven knows the web is abuzz with hundreds more, from breathless anticipators who’ve finally had their salivation curbed. For now, anyway.