Wednesday, December 26, 2012
As a huge fan of the man and his work, I've been eager to see Django Unchained for quite some time. The movie is a classic revenge movie, with a sufficiently troubling twist: slavery. Django (Jamie Foxx) is recruited by the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) early on in the movie to aid the latter in finding a trio of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. Schultz does not know what they look like, but Django is intimately familiar with their features - as flashbacks reveal them to be the ones responsible for brutalizing him and his wife (Kerry Washington) and ultimately tearing them apart. The two soon become a professional bounty hunting duo and set out to reclaim Django's lost love. But of course this is a Quentin Tarantino film so there's going to be lots of language, lots of quirky dialogue, and lots of blood.
I had the pleasure of reading one of the early drafts of this screenplay some time back when it was posted online. My expectations were only elevated by this read-through, and while some revisions were made to the final product the meat of the story and the narrative was still completely in tact.
Tarantino has referred to Django Unchained in several interviews as a spaghetti western set in the American South, and that's a perfect description of this piece. All of the major genre factors are here: a deadly but accessible protagonist who usually has the perfect one-liner on standby, powerful pathos invoked by the depiction of innocent people being harmed, untamed wilderness captured beautifully on camera, and of course the music of Ennio Morricone. Hints of Quentin's love affair with spaghetti Westerns can be detected in some of his earlier works (most notably in Kill Bill: Vol 2), but in Django Unchained he's pulled out all the stops and is in full fanboy mode.
Performances all around are a real treat. Jamie Foxx develops Django from a bitter but mostly timid former slave into a full-fledged world-weary gunslinger. The transition doesn't take terribly long, but it's masterfully handled and by the time Django puts on his sunglasses (cool factor +100) he's completely believable as an iconic Western hero archetype. Christoph Waltz basically plays Dr. Schultz like he did the other Tarantino role that made him famous with American audiences; Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. But here he's one of the good guys, which makes him that much more entertaining to watch. He's charming and sophisticated, possessed of a wide vocabulary that often stumps his conversational partners, and of course thoroughly German. Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie, a character as morally decayed as his repulsively mottled teeth. And of course Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Candie's "head house nigger," is simultaneously compelling and frightening.
Django Unchained is also, as strange as it might seem, Tarantino's funniest film to date. There are enough laughs peppered throughout its run time that you could call it a comedy without being entirely heretical. It's obviously not a comedy, strictly speaking, but I laughed more often in Django Unchained than I have in many a movie billed exclusively as a comedy. And that goes for the audience in attendance with me.
The drawbacks to this film are largely subjective. If you're easily offended by coarse language and excessive violence, then Django Unchained is not for you. It's also almost 3 hours long; but for me this is a plus because I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and was glad to have so much of it to watch.
As a nitpick, I do have to mention two minor and very stereotypically "me" gripes. First, Tarantino's personal cameo in the film is as an Australian and his accent is pretty bad. It's never really explained why his character is Australian, so the part-British/part-Australian/part-stroke-patient grated on me a bit. Secondly, James Remar plays two characters in the film. I've got nothing against James Remar - he's a fantastic actor - but his first character dies early on and when his second character shows up his costume/makeup isn't strikingly different. It doesn't affect the story at all as neither character gets a great deal of screen time, but it just threw me off.
That's where I think Django could be a watershed moment for racial strife in this country: bringing white and black people together to cheer on the demise of slave owners and racists for roughly 3 hours. Maybe I'm being far too generous with this movie (Spike Lee certainly would say so) regarding its capacity to effect change; time will tell. Either way, Django Unchained is arguably one of Tarantino's best; easily standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds in terms of sheer craftsmanship and entertainment value.
There's plenty of offensive content in this movie - from the violence, to the traditional swearing, to the repeated use of the n-word. But I don't think there's anything racially offensive about this movie given the historical context. And if you're a fan of bloody revenge Westerns or of Tarantino in general, you can't afford to miss Django because (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist!) it's off the chain.