Review: Django Unchained
BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
12/25/12 at 7:37 AM
The "spaghetti Western," a brand of Italian 1960s cinema that reimagined the American West through moral ambiguity and brutal violence made famous through films like Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" trilogy, is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite film genres.
The film buff/filmmaker's new film "Django Unchained" is both an homage to these and other exploitation movies, and yet it is undeniably made in his own style. Much like Tarantino turned the World War II movie on its head with "Inglorious Basterds" (Jewish characters kill Hitler, for goodness sakes), historical events are revised to effect here as well.
"Django Unchained" is a Tarantino "Southern," for lack of a better term to describe this revenge tale set in pre-Civil War Mississippi with slavery its most prevalent theme.
There will be some manner of discomfort on the part of audiences experiencing the director's ongoing cinematic relationship with people targeted because of their race or ethnicity, and there should be.
Slavery isn't pretty. Neither are bounty hunting, hangings or shootouts with body counts in the dozens. Neither is the use of the N-word, uttered 100-plus times during the film, and quite simply necessary to depict the slave trade and those engaged in its operation.
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L.
Jackson, Kerry Washington
2 hours, 45 minutes
R (strong graphic violence
throughout, a vicious fight, pervasive
language, some nudity)
(on a scale of zero
to four stars)
What makes Tarantino's film one of the best of 2012 is that he is as unafraid of making this subject matter confoundingly entertaining as he is unapologetic at depicting Americans at their worst.
He confronts the reality of slavery in the U.S. by looking at an ugly past with a modern viewpoint.
"Django. D-J-A-N-G-O. The D is silent," explains the slave-on-a-mission played by Jamie Foxx, speaking to a fellow bar patron played by Franco Nero - the Italian movie star of 100-plus movies including 1966's "Django," in which he played the gunslinger of the title.
This is the kind of film-referencing that Tarantino pulls off repeatedly in the movie. But these are more insider-ish "Easter egg" moments for fellow film buffs, and they rarely detract from the picture in the manner that sometimes proved to be a liability in "Inglorious Basterds."
In that picture, it seemed like I could almost hear Tarantino saying, "Hey, did you see what I did right there? I took that from 'The Dirty Dozen.' Cool, huh?"
Django's appearance is just a Gucci-pouch short of Cleavon Little's fashion stylings in "Blazing Saddles" for much of the movie. But in the beginning, Foxx's character is a beaten-down shell of a man, part of a chain gang of slaves fortunate to come in contact with Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter.
Christoph Waltz, the Oscar-winner from "Basterds," plays Schultz with a deadly whimsy that dictates much of the film's comedy. He hunts men who are "wanted dead or alive," and if the bounty price is the same, he's found they're more manageable dead.
Schultz buys Django for selfish reasons (he's hunting three criminals who only Django can identify), but his guilt is such that he guarantees Django that once the men are caught, he is a free man.
Tarantino's script imagines this rare bond - a white man granting a black man his freedom, and then agreeing to partner with him - from an unusual perspective and respect for the time in which the men lived. This adds a level of humanity to what is, at its core, a bloody good revenge romp to find the man who now owns Django's wife (Kerry Washington).
Schultz is deadly accurate as a shooter, and Django is a fast-draw master, and firearms are their weapons of choice, with Tarantino idealizing their kills from a Sam Peckinpah "Wild Bunch" perspective. But rather than violent blood sprays, we often view pink, pulpy chunks of bad guys that go flying thanks to shotgun blasts and close-range pistol fire.
In leaving a bloody trail across the South, Tarantino plants one in-joke after another. A plantation owner is not only played by Don Johnson, himself a veteran of 1970s exploitation films (Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Don Stroud - these guys are all over the movie), but Johnson is dressed to resemble Col. Sanders of fried-chicken fame.
And that's before Johnson's character leads a KKK raid, which goes awry when the klansmen debate the deficient eye-holes and breathing ability through their home-made white hoods.
Perhaps only Tarantino could pull off such silliness and have this much fun making a film about the ills of slavery.
He's definitely the only one who could set all of this to an anachronistic soundtrack of new music by John Legend, classic-rock staples from Jim Croce ("I've Got a Name") and Richie Havens ("Freedom") and instrumentals by Ennio Morricone, the man whose music is the soundtrack of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" among other spaghetti-Western classics.
The 165-minute picture speeds along its journey to a third act dominated by the duo's facade as "mandingo traders" dealing in fighting slaves that leads to Django's wife and her sadistic owner, plantation man Calvin Candie.
As good as Leonardo DiCaprio is at playing Candie as a pretentious Francophile in an almost vaudevillian mustache-twirling performance, it is Samuel L. Jackson who hilariously threatens to hijack the whole film as Candie's devoted black servant/yes-man to his lifelong massuh.
After all manner of Southern hospitality and Southern meanness, Tarantino's "Southern" is intoxicating entertainment, relentlessly politically incorrect and intriguing commentary.
You can't want for more than that out of a film that perhaps comes closest to being everything that Tarantino grew up loving about the movies.
Original Print Headline: Bloody Good Revenge
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
Christoph Waltz (left) appears as Schultz and Jamie Foxx plays Django in "Django Unchained," which was directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film centers on a slave trying to rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation. ANDREW COOPER / The Weinstein Company / AP
Jamie Foxx (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio star in "Django Unchained." Courtesy / The Weinstein Company