DJANGO UNCHAINED Review

It is likely with a biased opinion that I fully indulged in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. I am, of course, from the generation that was young enough to find Reservoir Dogs on VHS and proclaim Pulp Fiction as our own kind of masterpiece that pushed us to go to film school and wanting to gather a larger pool of knowledge concerning film so that we might apply them to our own works. Tarantino is the inspiration, the guy who made it seem possible for a film lover to become a filmmaker and that essence, that feeling of connection in giving the audience what it really wants, what it really craves despite feeling so constricted to the standards of Hollywood filmmaking. When the man decided he was going to take on the topic of slavery for his latest film it was certainly a field that would provide plenty of material for the kind of brutal, over-the-top genre pictures he likes to pay homage to. My only concern going in was how might this come off when made by a white man. From the get go though it is clear that Tarantino knew what he was getting himself into and that he wouldn't have done so had he not known what he was going to do with it. The film is, most of the time, extremely bent on undermining the power and authority of the institution of what slavery was and in doing so the writer/director brings his flair for sharp, witty dialogue into a film that is overall a very serious movie. In the same way he treated the Nazi's of World War II Tarantino again turns history on its head and gives the overseer's exactly what they deserve and then some. It also doesn't hurt he's extracted some of the better performances this year from his top form group of actors.

The film is very much in the same vein as Tarantino’s previous film, Inglorious Basterds, in terms of it being historical fiction mixed with revenge fantasy. It is a way of re-writing the past to feel some type of justification for what was so horribly done to a certain group of people. Tarantino has said that Django along with Basterds might be a trilogy of similar-themed films, and it is hard not to want more from the director in this vein. Though Inglorious Basterds was a near masterpiece and my favorite film of 2009 Django Unchained features such a different tone it is hard to see them as anything more than companion pieces. In this spin on the western the influential director tells the tale of a slave who is rescued for no reason more than the knowledge he acquired while being traded around the southern United States two years before the outbreak of the civil war. This fortunate turn of events for the slave who is called Django (Jamie Foxx) comes in the form of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a role written specifically for him) who is now a bounty hunter searching for a group of slave traders known as the Brittle Brothers. In a wonderfully photographed ode to the westerns of yesteryear we watch as Dr. King and Django become a team with a formidable chemistry and a mission to rescue Django’s estranged wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) after Django more than upholds his end of the bargain. The only catch being that Hildy (as she is so affectionately called) is now serving at Candie Land, the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi run by the despicable Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) become partners in Quentin Tarantino's latest.
What makes Tarantino as a filmmaker so enticing is his sense of storytelling. The way in which he conveys a story is so unconventional compared to what the standard movie goer is accustomed to. With this pre-determined incompatibility already installed in the way the director doesn’t care to adhere to anyone’s standards but his own and he takes it even further by touching on the subject that most in today's society would like to ignore ever happened in our country’s history. In his writing of the south in the heyday of slavery the man who has always pushed the rules of movie making makes sure we understand how brutal, how disgusting the times truly were. Django as a character isn’t all you would expect right off the bat. This is what separates Tarantino’s writing from the majority of his peers. While his story may ultimately be standard revenge tale the characters he creates, fleshes out continuously and builds within a fully constructed world are all his own. We go in expecting to immediately meet Django as this gun toting bad ass who is smarter than anyone in the room and will come out of any situation alive. The truth is quite the opposite though. Despite what skills he may carry with firearms he is a timid creature, one who understands only a limited image of the world he lives in. It is only under the supervision of Schultz that Django becomes the leading man that deserves to have a film named after him. As Django, Foxx plays it cool and coy. He is best when he yearns to shed his naïve ways and become a respected man by learning from Schultz. He is eager and overzealous yet it is so savagely satisfying to see him get a true sense of satisfaction from his rare opportunity. Still, even though Foxx’s character carries the name on the marquee it is DiCaprio and Waltz that end up stealing the show.

It is not until just after half an hour into the two hour and forty five minute experience that we meet Mr. Candie but it is apparent from the first line he mutters he is a person easy to despise and despicable enough that we don’t trust our eyes to stray from him. It is somewhat difficult to see DiCaprio as anything more than a leading man, but with the weight of the production off his shoulders it is easy to see he simply relished in adding something to the bigger picture. He radiates the charm of a southern gentleman while always sinking in to his nasty dialogue with a specific taste to his delivery. It is truly nothing short of a fantastic performance, a full, rounded character that is evil incarnate. This is easy to tell as his character is revolting to an extreme, to the point you have to look away the first scene that features him because what is happening on screen is honestly that hard to take. There were several times throughout the film I had to glance away or try not to imagine the countless times these things actually happened to poor souls. Despite all of this though, despite wanting to look away for fear of accepting the extreme discrimination DiCaprio makes it impossible to take our eyes off him when he speaks. Whether it be the slick southern drawl, the pointed facial hair reminiscent of many incarnations of Satan, or the disturbing dedication of his right hand man Henry (Samuel L. Jackson) everything about Calvin Candie is more and more reason to hate him which makes him all the more glorious as one of the best villains ever put to screen.

Inglorious Basterds gave us an equally disgusting antagonist in the form of Hans Landa (a role originally going to be played by DiCaprio) that won a best supporting actor Oscar for Waltz. While it would have been easy to cast Waltz in another evil role here and cash in on the man’s amazing ability to be so charming while being equally devious Tarantino instead takes the exact opposite route and makes Waltz the most empathetic character in the film. Waltz is simply wonderful in the part, displaying a wit that usually will exceed all those around him yet as he becomes less and less comfortable in the brutal realities of the southern U.S. Django is afforded the opportunity to build his confidence while Schultz is given the chance to seek a different type of reward rather than the typical bounty he’s given.

Leonardo DiCaprio as slave owner Calvin J. Candie gives us the best villain of the year.
The many facets that this pair encounters along the way only enhance their camaraderie while allowing the audience a no holds barred look into just how blunt and disgusting slavery truly was. Whether it be the fictionalized Mandingo fights, the effective but never abused use of the N-word or the surprising traits many of these characters display. It is both eye-opening and ultimately extremely satisfying as we watch their tension-filled quest come to the obvious conclusion. As positively intriguing or inaccessibly evil as the writer/director has crafted these characters to be none of them are exactly characteristics we weren’t expecting from the actors respective roles. While this is not a bad thing, it instead shows the skill level at which Tarantino operates. There is an exception to the rule in Sam Jackson’s Henry; a head house slave who has become a man so entranced by his servitude that he has essentially come to despise those suffering the same fate as him with less privileged duties. It is a strange, unexpected role for such a defiantly strong actor with a strict sense of who he is. Though I don’t necessarily like the image of who Sam Jackson is as a person his acceptance here is admirable and his overall performance lends a stark contrast to the layers of just how manipulating slavery could be.

What is ultimately the real surprise of Django Unchained though is how thoroughly entertaining it comes to be and how satisfied you are, considering the subject matter, when you leave the theater. This is of course due to the sharp bits of humor thrown in. One of the funniest scenes in the film portraying an early version of the Ku Klux Klan and an argument among its members about the bags they are wearing over their faces that features Don Johnson as Big Daddy and Jonah Hill in an all too brief cameo. The way in which Tarantino infuses this in and continues to test his title character, giving him close call after close call of rescuing his family from the clutches of pure evil is what makes the payoff all the better. It doesn’t hurt that the scope of the film feels so grand and epic yet so grounded in that there is no trace of special effects or any modern day filmmaking techniques. You can see the grain on the actual film as much as you can see the grit of DiCaprio’s yellow-stained teeth. It is an accomplished film from a filmmaker so in love with the art form it is absolutely impossible to not embrace the care with which everything about this film has been crafted. It isn’t without flaws and it tends to drive home its message in the least subtle of ways but all the buckets of blood, the hyper-stylized violence and willingness to not hold back in general serve the characters we come to know so well it delivers the single most impactful viewing experience I’ve had this year. This may not be Tarantino’s single greatest achievement but it adds another incredible entry in the directors filmography and one of the few films that will live on past its theatrical run and home video release. Django Unchained will always be relevant, become a staple of pop culture and a point of reference in everyday conversation. It has a lasting impression and if nothing else that is the mark of a great film.