Admittedly, this review may be more straightforward than others, because Django Unchained has been my most anticipated film of the year and it managed to deliver in every respect. Much like Bond films, a new film by Quentin Tarantino is very much an event for me. I get really excited, rewatch his past work, and wait in eager anticipation for what is coming very soon. Django Unchained is the kind of film that Tarantino has been building to, based on many of his previous films, which incorporate many western elements. This is a film that is rooted to the atmosphere of spaghetti westerns, but true to Tarantino form, feels like a genre film unto itself. It is just as much a Blaxploitation film as it is a western and it just as much a comedy as it is an action-thriller. The dialogue and colorful characters are of course a highlight, but there is certainly plenty going on in this lively western opus from the mind of Tarantino.
Calvin Candie: I’ve heard a tale about you. You got me curious.
Django: I’m curious as to what makes you so curious.
The film is set in the Deep South, a couple years before the Civil War. A bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who uses his former occupation as a dentist for his cover, is in search of a gang of killers, the Brittle Brothers. There is only one man who can identify these men by face. This man is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Dr. Schultz frees Django (the D is silent by the way) and enlists him as a partner in bounty hunting. As a deal, Django will help locate the Brittle Brothers and Schultz will assist in finding Broomhilda. In locating her, this eventually leads the duo to a plantation owner known as Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys betting on slave fights. Candie’s plantation is known as Candyland, where he of course owns many slaves, including his right-hand man, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). To get what they want, Django and Schultz are going to have to use their talents as gunmen as well as their powers of persuasion in order to be successful.
Django Unchained is different from Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, for a number of reasons, but not in ways that make it a lesser film. While ‘Inglourious’ was a warped version of a war film, complete with revisionist history, that was structured as a series of tension-filled vignettes, with tinges of humor throughout, ‘Django ‘is a stylish beast of a film that is more in line with Tarantino’s handling of Kill Bill. Despite being a period film, things are very stylized here, with bloodshed being over-emphasized at times (which has you better accepting the brutality of certain situations), dialogue registering as true to the times in language, but anachronistic in tone and delivery, and various soundtrack choices that could be deemed, “unexpected,” to say the least. There was even a decision to tie in elements of the oldest German legend, Der Nibelungenleid, into the story and themes of this film. None of these things made me appreciate the movie less however, as I find there is a pure confidence in the way Tarantino presents all these aspects of the film.
This goes into why one of the key aspects I love about ‘Inglourious’ is now present in Django Unchained as well. While prior Tarantino films featured gangsters, crooks, and hitmen speaking in hip Tarantino language, with various pop culture references, these two period films still contain his style of dialogue, but it has been appropriated to fit the times. For ‘Django’ the writing is certainly dealing with the time period they are in, but it has that feel of a Tarantino movie, given the tone of various scenes, how people speak, and how the story evolves. It is also not shy about addressing the issues going on during this time, which brings me to the next topic.
Django: In my world you gotta get dirty so that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting dirty.
Slavery is very much in the foreground of this film. People may not have needed Quentin Tarantino to be the one to deal with one of America’s past shames, but he certainly has and has not backed down from putting forth the ugliness of this period, not to mention continuing to fit in the N-word whenever possible. With that said, this is not a movie that has an agenda (the message of “slavery is bad” is not exactly current); instead, the film is more like a revenge fantasy combined with a hero’s journey, which takes a character from a low point and into a higher realm, as he is allowed to reach his full potential. But then again, it is interesting that the two most charismatic characters in this film are on opposing ends of the concept of slavery.
Getting to the characters, once again Tarantino has assembled an odd ensemble that consists of big names, character actors, and obscure stars from the past. Jamie Foxx, as the titular Django, fits in quite well within this universe. He of course has an attitude of cool about him, but is also able to bring a convincing sense of being a slave turned loose and allowed to grow from nothing into a full blown gunslinger. At first I found an aspect slightly underwhelming about Django, as he was not the most engaging aspect of this film, before I realized that the movie needed to take him to a place where he suddenly became ‘unchained’ in a sense, prompting me to make more sense of how things had previously played out.
The two other big players, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, are incredibly entertaining in this film. Waltz may not be creating a completely new character in the same way that his Oscar-winning performance as Hans Landa emerged as one of the great villains of the time, but he is certainly very aware of how to handle Tarantino’s dialogue. He portrays this eccentric figure who is also a seasoned veteran in the field of bounty hunting, making him incredibly entertaining to watch. DiCaprio fits into the same sort of mold in terms of charisma, as he plays a horrible person who seems to be effortlessly charming to watch. His Candie character gets his kicks from watching slaves fight each other and happily exerts his authority over others, making him an easy target as far as truly repugnant people go, yet it is hard to not want to keep watching this character and see where the story ends up taking him. I would say that DiCaprio is perhaps weaker than Waltz, but that is mainly due to how he is less essential as a character.
Dr. King Schultz: You silver tongue devil, you.
There are plenty of supporting players in this film as well, with people like Don Johnson, James Remar, Walton Goggins, and Tarantino favorite Michael Parks, but the most memorable is easily Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen. Stephen is the main house servant for Candie and he has accepted his role as loving guardian for the white people at this plantation. Jackson, who people should be well aware is comfortable with Tarantino’s style, plays Stephen incredibly over-the-top, keeping in line with other wild Jackson performances, but keeps things very entertaining as he steals scenes and even unleashes a sinister side that makes his character even more compelling. The way Stephen shifts between his interactions with Candie to his interactions with Django and other black characters shows where his alliances are and it fits well into the wild journey that the film is taking us on.
Now it is not just the writing and these characters that make Django Unchained a superb film. Tarantino once again manages to excellently display his talents as a director, by creating a universe for this film to exist in, which is impressive. Finding the balance in tone, which has the film shifting between tension and humor, during the same scene, is something Tarantino has constantly been able to accomplish and that continues to be true here. The style of the film, which I have already described as having a mix of western and Blaxploitation elements, is deliberate and inclined to place plenty of emphasis on the craziness, while practically sneaking in some subtle thematic elements as well.
It may be important to note that that Sally Menke, the editor on all of Tarantino’s previous films, passed away back in 2010, which has led to former assistant editor Fred Raskin taking over editing duties for this film. I would certainly have to see the film again to notice a true difference, but this film does feel in step with Tarantino’s other work. Also notable is the cinematography by Robert Richardson, who manages to fit in the various styles ‘Django’ is going for, with great wide shots of the outdoor locations, fittingly ugly shots that capture the brutality of certain scenes, and then other shots that capture the attitude of bounty hunters going after their targets. And of course, I must also note the fantastic soundtrack which incorporates a wide variety of old and new tracks, including work by artists such as Ennio Morricone, John Legend, and Rick Ross. Also, suffice it to say that Django probably has the best theme song of any character this year.
Django Unchained is the most fun you can have at the theaters this holiday season, assuming that you know you are going into a Tarantino film. It is funny, exciting, incredibly well-scripted, packed with memorable lines, and full of actors that are clearly having a lot of fun. It is definitely not a film for sensitive people, as the language and violence can be about as intense as you can imagine for a film that has Tarantino tackling the issue of slavery. It is also a long film, but with the way everything is established, I could honestly have stood being in this wild wild western world for much longer. It takes an accomplished master to be able to give you all that you want in an entertaining film and still leave you wanting more from it. Quentin Tarantino’s work on Django Unchained certainly helped it fall into that territory. As a result, the film climbs high into my list of favorite films of 2012.
Billy Crash: D-jango!
Djagno: The D is silent hillbilly.