Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.

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