Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is supposedly in his late 40s. But anyone familiar with his filmography can attest to the fact that he and his movies often evince much more youthful energy. Plastered all over every film he's made is an undeniable and undying love for cinema, and hundreds of references to a myriad of other works are usually embedded in each of his films. As a writer-director, Tarantino has only a handful of works to his name. And while some are more iconic than others, they are all unquestionably his.

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.

As you can imagine, any movie about slavery is going to have its fair share of bloody moments. But as I mentioned before, this is a Tarantino-directed movie about slavery so the bloodshed is taken to whole new level here. Many recent films have started replacing in-camera blood squibs with post production pre-rendered "bloodsplosions;" something that often works better depending on the context of the film (Sin City and 300 come to mind). In Django, however, it seems as though Tarantino was intentionally retaliating against that practice. The usual "pop" accompanied by a crimson mist to indicate a bullet wound is here replaced by a sizable burst of red fluid and a small treasure trove of "wet noises" for added effect. Django is easily Tarantino's bloodiest movie next to Kill Bill, but like that film all of the blood and gore is hyperbolic and stylized to emphasize its theatricality rather than its horror. Still, Django Unchained doesn't bother to rein itself in and as a revenge-film that's pretty ideal.

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.


Django Unchained is exactly what I expected it to be: a bold and bloody revenge story accented by classic Tarantino-tropes. One of those tropes is, notably, the use of the word "nigger;" which has been the subject of some controversy. The word is used both as pejorative and as simply part of the parlance of the times depicted. It's an offensive word, undoubtedly. But in Django Unchained it has a place and it fits the film; it would be hypocritical to show slaves getting beaten and branded but then censor the verbiage used to demean them at the same time. I really do not like getting embroiled in race-related controversy, but I appreciate artists and writers who blast right past political correctness and just get to the point, however uncomfortable it may be. Up to this point in time, Dave Chappelle's work was the best example I could think of. But Django Unchained was, for me, a new kind of racial-barrier deconstruction. It was a real treat reveling in the revenge wrought upon slave owners in the film with an audience that was predominantly black.

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.

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