DJANGO UNCHAINED Review:
- Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. Seriously. Thank you for creating original films based on original ideas - movies that both pay tribute to cinematic history and also boldly forge something new and never-before-seen. There's a reason why film geeks scramble to get a hold of new Tarantino scripts when they're completed - they're awesome, inspired pieces of original writing. And there's a reason why a new Tarantino film is always a true event for film fans - it's because we know we're getting something special, unique, genre-bending and boundary-pushing. DJANGO UNCHAINED is the latest from QT, and oh man, it is certifiably badass. In many ways, the movie is the perfect companion piece to his last film, Inglorious Basterds. That film was Jewish revenge-fantasy, juxtaposing World War II era catastrophe with fearless glam-rock rebirth. Django forges a similar path, juxtaposing the atrocities of American slavery in the pre-Civil War South with the rebirth and empowerment and new-found sense of swagger and self that came with hip-hop music over a century later. DJANGO is over-the-top, often very funny, and full of spaghetti western-meets-grindhouse style violence. It's got a pulpy style and QT's usual knack for dialogue-driven snap. The film didn't quite floor me in the same way that some of my favorite QT films have in the past, but I still sort of loved it all the same. DJANGO is one last injection of cinematic awesome in what has been, I think, a fine year for film.
At its core, DJANGO is Tarantino's take on the Spaghetti Western genre, popularized by the great Sergio Leone films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Tarantino has littered his films with Leone references and call-backs, but here, the entire film pays heavy tribute to Leone, even including a a few new pieces composed by the legendary Ennio Marricone (who did all of the iconic themes for Leone's films). The film also pays tribute to Sergio Corbucci, who's B-grade "Django" Westerns are the inspiration for and spiritual successors of this one. But of course, DJANGO also blends the conventions of the Spaghetti Western (including a lot of the iconic sorts of shots that Leone made famous) with the themes and tropes of Blaxploitation. This is a genre that Tarantino has certainly dabbled in a bit before, especially given that Blaxploitation films could often also be labeled what you might call "grindhouse." But DJANGO UNCHAINED places us in the Antebellum South, where we meet Django (the D is silent), played by Jamie Foxx, being led by chains through the woods alongside a group of fellow slaves. But Django's life of dehumanizing servitude takes a sudden turn when the slaves and their masters have a run in with German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). King has taken up a bounty on the law-breaking Brittle Brothers, who have taken refuge - under assumed names - on a plantation, and is looking for a slave who can identify them. As it turns out, Django is Schultz's man. Schultz, however, detests slavery - he enters into a mutual agreement with Django in which the now-freed slave can share in the profits of he and Schultz's bounty-hunting. Django agrees to partner up with Schultz on one condition - that eventually, the Doctor will help him to find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was long ago forcefully separated from her husband, and made a slave at the plantation owned by the vile and violent Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The film is anchored by four incredible performances. One - Jamie Foxx as Django. Foxx faced an enormous challenge in this film - starting out as a slave who had been beaten and humiliated into submission and servitude, and slowly but surely becoming a full man - and not just a man, but a badass gunslinger not to be $&%#'ed with. Foxx does a masterful job here. Oftentimes, Django must act one way in the service of he and King's schemes, while his eyes ever so slightly betray the fact that it's all an act. For example, when King and Django go to meet Candie, Django poses as a black slave trader - the lowest of the low. Django must grapple with how far to "get into character," and the way Foxx plays it is just right. Two - Christoph Waltz is phenomenal as Dr. King Schultz. King is a fascinating character - a man who's as sharp a talker as he is a shooter. He's also a true outsider in the American South - a German who is at once repulsed by the slavery, violence, and moral bankruptcy of America but one who also has thrived and profited from that environment. Waltz makes King's character arc fascinating in its own right - perhaps even more so than Django's. But mostly, Waltz is just awesome as hell. His theatricality and flair matched with Tarantino's stylized dialogue is, again, a match made in movie heaven. Three - Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. Candie doesn't enter into the picture until midway through the film, but he is, immediately, a scene-stealer. Suffice it to say, I've never seen DiCaprio play a role like this before - an over-the-top villain who mixes Southern Hospitality with sadistic bloodlust and an endless supply of racist hate. DiCaprio, surprisingly, makes Candie a ball of pent-up rage and madness, and that barely-suppressed craziness helps make the Candie-centric scenes spill over with tension. Four - Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie's top slave and head-of-household. Wow - this is one of Jackson's best-ever performances, and one where he's not coasting on playing Sam Jackson, but a really fascinating character that is far-removed from the actor's typical persona (one which has, in many ways, been shaped by his roles in Tarantino's films). Stephen is in many ways the biggest badguy in the film - representing a slave who has a false sense of power due to his high position in the plantation, and who has been brainwashed into having ultimate loyalty to Candie and his family. Even as Django fights to be "unchained," Stephen fights for the status quo. He is the slave just strong-willed and independent-minded enough to be a useful lieutenant for Candie, but never so strong-willed as to ever question the will of his master. Of course, Stephen is a dark character, but Sam Jackson also makes him fun as hell - his verbal exchanges with Django are brilliantly funny.
The great casting doesn't end there. So many brilliant actors turn up in smaller roles that it's hard to keep track. A few that I'll mention are Don Johnson as plantation owner Big Daddy, Walton Goggins as Candie's muscle Billy Crash, M.C. Gainey - who I love from Lost and Justified - as Big John Brittle, and even Jonah Hill, who has a cameo in a hilarious scene involving a proto version of the KKK. Tarantino himself actually cameos as well, in an explosively oddball scene towards the end of the movie. I'll also give special mention to Kerry Washington, who does a fantastic job as Broomhilda Von Shaft (purportedly, an ancestor of John Shaft (!!!), according to QT). It would have been interesting had Washington played a larger role, but this is, ultimately, Django's story, and she is his princess that needs saving from horrible circumstances. But Washington infuses Broomhilda with unspoken emotion and trepidation, and it makes her eventual reunion with her husband that much sweeter.
DJANGO has a lot of the slow-build, dialogue-heavy scenes that we've come to expect from Tarantino. But as in Inglorious Basterds, they prove so well-done that it's hard to find much fault in them. Some sequences feel ever-so-slightly overlong though, and you wonder about the effect that not having the late Sally Menke on editing duties may have had. Menke, who edited all of QT's previous films, sadly passed away before DJANGO was filmed, and I do think there's a slight lack of tightness in some of the scenes as compared to films like Kill Bill and Basterds. Overall, it felt to me like parts of the film looked a little drab - lacking some of the visual richness of the Leone movies that QT was referencing. I usually leave a Tarantino film with several iconic images emblazoned in my memory - I'd say that happened less so than usual with this one. However, the movie jolts to electrifying life in a couple of key instances. One is when Tarantino utilizes flashbacks to Django and Broomhilda's past, presented in a rough, 70's grindhouse-esque style that emphasized the exploitative nature of the scenes. These, to me, were some of the most powerful scenes in the film. The other scenes that truly pop are the action scenes, which are just vintage Tarantino. The director has always had a knack for chaotic action scenes filled with one "holy $#@%!" moment after another in rapid-fire succession. And, damn, when business picks up in DJANGO UNCHAINED, it really picks up. Some of the big shoot-out scenes are just balls-to-the-wall insane.
I think the thematic point that a lot of people will want to discuss about the film is its sense of morality. For better or for worse, it's hard at this point to watch the movie completely in a vacuum, and not think, at least a little, about some of the recent shootings that have occurred across the country. What's interesting is that, despite all of the movie's over-the-top violence and pulpy nature, it actually does meditate a bit on the morality of violence. In fact, Dr. King's entire arc is sort of an exploration of this in its own, slightly-twisted way. As a bounty hunter, King kills only for money, never really making moral judgements about what he does except to justify it: killing these men is okay, because they are criminals, and he's within his legal boundaries. But at some point, King stops doing only what is profitable, and starts thinking more about what is right. Granted, even doing what is right involves gunning down bad guys - but that's another theme of the film. Django also paints a picture of an Antebellum South so brainwashed by slave culture that only a storm of bullets and hellfire could wake it up. In reality, that wake-up call was the bloodshed of the Civil War. But in Tarantino's pulp-fiction movieverse, Django was the precursor - the first shot of the Civil War came when he picked up a gun and began to turn the tables on the men who'd long abused and persecuted him and his people. This is, in many ways, a parallel to the revenge-scheme in Inglorious Basterds - over-the-top and uber-violent, but righteous in the way that it shows these characters not just fighting for themselves, but literally pushing against history. All of the violence, well, it begets violence. And Tarantino is a master at juxtaposing the empowerment of the modern minority with the delusional entitlement of the historical oppressor. Basically, the movie is a satisfying, cathartic, retroactive "#%$& you!" to the slave-owners, oppressors, and racists of the pre-Civil War South.
So like I said, thank you Quentin Tarantino. Although DJANGO UNCHAINED didn't quite register for me as the pure cinematic dynamite of your very best work, it had some of the year's most memorable performances and moments, and it was a true original. Funny, bloody, and badass to the core, this is vintage QT, and we as film fans are all better for having his movies, a defiant alternative to so much of the blandness that is out there. My main question now is ... what's next?
My Grade: A-