Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), Dennis Christopher (Leonide Moguy), James Remar (Butch Pooch / Ace Speck), David Steen (Mr. Stonesipher), Dana Michelle Gourrier (Cora), Nichole Galicia (Sheba), Laura Cayouette (Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly), Ato Essandoh (D'Artagnan), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Franco Nero (Bar Patron), James Russo (Dicky Speck), Bruce Dern (Old Man Carrucan), Jonah Hill (Bag Head #2).

Watching Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained I couldn’t help but think of those news stories you hear from time to time about how some group of Southern politicians want to downplay the “racial aspect” of slavery and teach students that the Civil War was about “States Rights” more than slavery (which is technically true, although since the right the Confederate States were fighting for was the right to own slaves, their argument doesn’t hold much water). What Tarantino has essentially done in Django Unchained is make the anti-Gone with the Wind. There are no smiling, happy slaves cracking jokes here. There is no romanticizing or idealizing the old South. In Tarantino`s film, everyone in the South is a racist bastard, deserving of what they get. Coming on the heels of his last film, Inglorious Basterds about a group of Jewish soldiers killing Nazis, giving us a more fitting ending to WWII than the real war gave us; Tarantino has essentially done the same thing here for slavery. That will not sit well with some – what he is essentially saying is that there is little to no difference between Southern slave owners and Nazis – but it is more accurate than not.

The film stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who has been sold at auction and is tracked down by King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter. He needs Django to point out the Brittle Brothers for him so he can kill them and collect the bounty. He makes Django a deal – he helps him catch the Brittle brothers, and Schultz will give Django his freedom. Django acquits himself so well on that first job; he decides to make their partnership more permanent. Django agrees. He needs money – and also help in becoming a killing machine. His wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) was also sold at auction, and Django will do anything to get her back. Schultz agrees to help him get Broomhilda back, after a winter of tracking, killing and making money.

The heart of the films first and second act is the relationship between Django and Schultz. In many ways, it is a mentor and student relationship – with Schultz molding Django's raw talent for killing people and helping to channel his immense anger into a more productive means. Waltz, who won an Oscar for Basterds playing perhaps the most memorably evil Nazi in cinema history, is essentially playing a Good German this time around. He is the one white character in the movie who disapproves of slavery, and you treats Django more or less like an equal. I say more or less, because even after they form a partnership, Schultz still only gives Django a third of the bounty they collect instead of half. And there are times when he seems almost patronizing to Django. Still, he is clearly the only good white character in the movie – and make no mistake, it is not a coincidence that he is not American. Foxx has the less showy of the two roles – Waltz gets the best dialogue, and as in Basterds, he makes the most of it. But through the course of the film, Foxx’s Django becomes his own man. While he needs Schultz at first to teach him what to do, by the third act, Django needs no one.

That third act is what elevates the film to the truly great. Once Schultz and Django figure out that Broomhilda has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the famed Candie Land plantation, who prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, they come up with a plan to get her back. Candie likes to put on a front of civility, class and enlightenment – and doesn’t understand how being one of the leading purveyors of Mandingo Fighting (slaves fighting slaves to the death) interferes with that. He even treats Django with more respect than he would treat any other black person, because Schultz treats him as an equal, and because he is posing as a “black slaver” himself. But make no mistake, Candie is as vile as creation as Tarantino has ever created – horribly, gleefully racist, and when he figures out that Schultz and Django may be playing him, he becomes even more hateful, and spews even more bile. Yet, despite how evil Candie is, perhaps the real villain of the film is Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s most trusted, oldest slave – who laughs at all Candie’s racist jokes, and looks down his nose at Django. Through the course of the movie, Steven does even more to protect his way of life – in which slavery plays a pivotal role. It is no mistake that the makeup job on Jackson makes him look like Uncle Ben. Jackson, who has pretty much been sleepwalking through his roles for the last decade or so, rips into his role as Steven – and makes what could have been a regular Uncle Tom role into something much deeper, darker and more complicated.

The film has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film. The films dialogue has a rhythm all its own – from the early scenes of Schultz and his “negotiation” with Django’s owner, to the dinner party scene which is the centerpiece of the third act to a ingenious and hilarious scene in which a bunch of Klan members complain about the lack of visibility in their hoods, no one writes dialogue quite like Tarantino – and no one is better at finding the right actors to deliver that dialogue. The film is also the most violent of Tarantino’s films – blood splatters the wall, the grass, the flowers, the trees and everything else around them every time guns are drawn – which is often.

What Tarantino has done in his last two films is what critics always complained about in his earlier films – he has developed a world view and a sense of morality. While Basterds was a better film – it is Tarantino’s masterpiece because his love of cinema and dialogue actually became key thematic elements in the film itself – Django is probably his angriest film. Many people have fooled themselves that in an America where Barack Obama is President, that racism is dead and we live in a “post racial world”. Tarantino doesn’t buy that argument. Django Unchained is a violent, angry look at race relations in America – yes, one that recognizes that America has come a long way from its earliest days, but still knows there is more to do. America still needs to reconcile itself with its violent, racist past and in some ways, a film like Django Unchained can help that. Yes, it is a spaghetti Western, a Blaxploitation film and a comedy. But it is also a more honest look at race in America than any other film in recent memory. Oh, and it’s the year’s most entertaining film to boot. This is truly a masterful film – one that only Tarantino could make.

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