Posted on 2/17/13 12:32 PM
Djangon Unchained - Like Quentin Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is an historical revenge fantasy. This time it's a mash-up homage to Blaxploitation films and Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Its entertainment value stems from the primal satisfaction of watching a freed slave kill white slave traders in gruesome ways.
Jamie Foxx plays the titular hero, a slave who in the film's opening is purchased somewhat violently by the German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two strike a deal that if Django helps him track down and secure the bounty of three men whom only he can identify, Schultz will not only give him a cut, but help him find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). In the process, Schultz trains Django to be a good shot and a quick draw.
If you're looking for a thoughtful drama about a man overcoming slavery and yearning for freedom, this isn't it. No, this is really just an action movie about a man trying to rescue his princess. (The character of the wife, Broomhilda, is seriously underdeveloped and we're never really shown why Django cares for her so much -- other than the fact that, well, she looks like Kerry Washington - and really, that may be reason enough.) This also isn't an attempt to accurately recreate the slavery-era. It feels more like an attempt to recreate '70s movies about slavery.
Surprisingly, Foxx takes a very long time settling into the leading role. It may just be the character, but it is quite clear from the on- set that he is not very comfortable in Django's shoes, and leads credence to why Will Smith, amongst so many others, dropped out of the picture so quickly. But once he finds his footing, he does a fantastic job walking the thin line between empathetic and sadistic. It is not an easy character to play, but Foxx makes it his own, bringing a sense of style and grace that are virtually absent from the rest of the film. And of course, he gets all the best lines.
Despite bearing several similarities to his multi-lingual part in Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Waltz portrayal easily forms the backbone of the movie. Tarantino once again takes full advantage of Waltz's polyglot abilities and uses it to great effect at different points in the film. Waltz's Schultz is basically a representation of all those white men who raised their voice against slavery and contributed to its abolition. Behind his facade of a cold-blooded bounty hunter we discover a righteous human being whose superior intellect is well matched by his great sense of compassion.
Schultz is a symbol of white men's conscience, courage and virtue in the same way as Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen is a symbol of Black men's pusillanimity, servility and hypocrisy. Thus, Stephen in many ways is Waltz's antithesis and the movie's true antagonist. And to Jackson's credit, he plays the part with great subtlety, guile and conviction. According to this critic, it's his best performance since Pulp Fiction (1994). Leonardo DiCaprio, in a rare negative portrayal, delivers a thumping performance as the sadistic Calvin Candie. A megalomaniac who dresses with the perfection of a fop, Candie is quite easily one of the most menacing Western villains of all time. Kerry Washington plays the part of the slave-girl Broomhilda-the only major female part in the movie-with exquisite charm.
Typical of a Tarantino film, some of the moments designed to amuse the most - involve spectacular bloodletting. Using ultra-violence as a punch line is one of the director's specialties. He paints deplorable portraits of certain characters, and then builds tension to the point that when their absurdly excessive punishment is handed out - it serves as a cathartic release. The director plays on the audience's darkest instincts, knowing that on some level, many viewers like seeing bad guys get what they deserve in especially painful ways. Especially if it's "just a movie." It's cheap. It's easy. But when choreographed by someone as skilled as Tarantino, it's also very effective.
Not all of the violence is meant to provide perverse thrills, though. There are scenes that depict the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. They are difficult to watch, but serve to make the justice that Django hands out that much more satisfying. However, this creates a balancing act. Alternating between violence that is meant to horrify and violence meant to satisfy our blood lust creates a tonal inconsistency that plagues the movie.
Django Unchained does have just a few issues: first of all, it is far too stretched out length- wise, and could have been edited a little more, even though it's not really something Tarantino tends to do. It's such a straightforward story that it really doesn't need a larger- than-life format. Also, the cinematography doesn't seem to fit well the atmosphere of the film: it's too modern looking, too polished and clean, while for such a film you would expected a rougher, brighter aesthetic, that would definitely give more justice to the film's setting.
Too much has been made about how "racist" Django Unchained may be. The answer is in no way is this picture racist. It deals with racism, so perhaps people make too many feeble generalizations and forget to say that. As unabashedly violent and unapologetically gruesome certain sequences are, Tarantino constructs this picture elegantly and respectfully, often making the blacks smarter and more educated than the whites, and never shying away from the fact that slavery was a disgusting, inhumane act that has and will forever stain the fabric of humanity. To call this film racist for the sole purpose that it uses "the n word" and features slavery and not addressing its plot, content, or direction is a misguided, terribly underfunded statement.
As a piece of entertainment, if you're a fan of genre films, straightforward revenge-based premises or Tarantino, "Django Unchained" is nothing to complain about. It's expertly filmed, cleverly written, gloriously violent, funny and wholly satisfying. As obvious as it is in its methods from time to time, it never loses its stylistic edge and never falters in the mechanics of good storytelling. Tarantino is capable of being more clever as a writer and more dynamic as a director, but he puts all his best skills to use in "Django" and it doesn't disappoint.
Review Number: 24