Its been awhile. On Christmas night I saw Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film on revenge as well as a twisted ode to the Spaghetti Western genre. Given that it was Christmas, the theater was packed as expected. Was Django off the chain (sorry, too easy), or should it have stayed…well…chained?
Let’s give it a look and see.
I was a little leery in early 2011 when I heard about this movie getting made. However, I’m a late-to-the-game Tarantino fan who soon stopped worrying given what I’ve already seen him do with plots that range from the absurdly simplistic (Kill Bill Vol. 1) to the potentially controversial (Inglorious Basterds). Plus, the all-star cast was too good to pass up.
One of the first things that painted this Spaghetti Western in a different light was of course the setting and the protagonist. Most Westerns (save AMC’s TV show Hell on Wheels) usually stray far from the Civil War period or the Southeast, sticking to the Undiscovered West. This movie mainly took place a few years before the Civil War and stayed within Texas and Mississippi. Not only that, most Westerns that feature black characters, like Hell on Wheels, do not have them as the lead.
The second major deviation from the Western norm is the soundtrack, a mix between the soulful sounds of the 70s and old school hip-hop. We start first with the initial meeting between the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) and his mentor German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a few years before the Civil War. Schultz frees Django from his current slavers in gory and over the top Tarantino fashion. Dr. Schultz is searching for the Brittle Brothers to collect a bounty, whom he knows kidnapped Django and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to sell them off separately at a slave auction. If Django can help find and identify the Brittle Brothers, Schultz will not only teach Django the trade of bounty hunting but also help him find his wife. After Schultz and Django become partners, we see Django take to the bounty hunting trade like a fish to…well I’ll save you the overused cliché. But the whole time, Django’s single-minded goal is to get his wife back, as seen through the many daydreams he has of her smiling countenance during the film.
Django and Schultz soon take down the Brittle Brothers on the plantation of Big Daddy, a Colonel Sanders-esque character played hilariously by Don Johnson.
After that, Schultz honors his word and frees Django from slavery. But instead of going their separate ways, he helps Django find out what becomes of his wife Broomhilda. Trust me, the reason why she has such an absurd name is explained. It turns out that Broomhilda is now a house slave and potential ‘comfort girl’ at the massive plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio), an unhinged and brutal racist underneath the polish of Southern charm. This of course leads to a vicious and bloody showdown that only Tarantino can showcase on the silver screen.
Personally, I loved Django Unchained. It was gory, irreverent and just plain fun. Anything with a white surface—whether it be roses, sheets, snow or walls—got sprayed with blood. The film did suffer from pacing and bloat issues toward the end, as certain scenes dragged out far longer than necessary. That was unfortunate, as at times I was wondering when and not how the film was going to end. Plus, there was a weird issue where an actor showed up in the movie's second act after he had been clearly killed in the very beginning of the film.
However, these issues did not detract from the fun escapist feel the film had similar to Inglorious Basterds. Django Unchained is an Alternate History revenge film set during one of America's ugliest periods. The performances were brilliant. I’m extremely glad Jamie Foxx got the role instead of Will Smith (whom Tarantino originally pursued for the role of Django). Foxx was tailor-made to be Django, who was much more understated than many of his previous roles. Foxx completely let Christoph Waltz shine as Dr. Schultz whenever the two shared the screen. And I think this might be Waltz’s first protagonist role since his Oscar-winning villainous turn in Inglorious Basterds. Their chemistry did not feel forced and made the first half of the film flow perfectly.
And then there was Leonardo DiCaprio. As good as an actor as DiCaprio is, a lot of his roles felt a little too similar in the past few years: broody, angry, tortured heroes who like to hunch their shoulders and yell. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is irrefutably a villain, a psychotic, bigoted scumbag who chews through scenery and has no regard for human life if it becomes an obstacle. In short, Candie was hands down one of DiCaprio’s finest performances ever. Most importantly, it really looks like DiCaprio is truly having fun this role. I hope he gets recognized for his work here.
Kerry Washington is solid as Broomhilda, but could have had more. Her role mainly demands her to cry and look terrified. But Sam Jackson was amazing as an evil Uncle Tom who run’s Candie’s Candieland plantation. His twisted sense of loyalty to Candie despite how his owner runs a slave fight club where combatants fight to the death is vile yet fascinating to behold. I’m happy to see Jackson in any Tarantino film, but Django Unchained is one of the few times we’ve seen Jackson play a straight-up villain and it works extremely well.
Now there might be some who are a bit thrown by how many times the ‘N’ word is slung around in this film. Yet given the antebellum time period the film was set in the copious usage made sense. As a black man I was not too bothered, though in hindsight it was rather excessive. Another thing that a previous reviewer noted was how just about every black slave in the film would look at Django either with shock, awe or indignation. This made sense since pre-Civil War most black Americans were still slaves and subservient to their masters, while Django is riding a horse (which leads to a hilarious exchange earlier in the film) and clearly answered to no one.
In final, I give Django Unchained two thumbs way up, a nice counterpoint for those looking for a fun cinematic experience to close out 2012.