Django Unchained: Jim Croce and Rick Ross, together at last
Django Unchained, the latest film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, is a hyperviolent revenge fantasy set in the American south, two years before the start of the Civil War. Equal parts Jack Hill and Sam Peckinpah, Django is another in a long line of Tarantino’s love-letters to the rough-edged, anything-goes cinematic landscape of the 1970’s. Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve, and a handful of jaded reviewers have begun calling out his use of genre conventions like it’s something he was ever trying to hide in the first place. What those same reviewers often fail to grasp is the skill needed to blend, refine, and refresh those ingredients time and time again. The heroes and villains of both the “blaxploitation” and western films of the 70’s were all but crushed under the weight of the genres themselves, and have blurred together into a small handful of archetypes that the general viewing public only remembers today as either “Pam Grier” or “Clint Eastwood”. Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a work populated with interesting and memorable characters, and it serves as a reminder of why Tarantino is perhaps the most consistently great director in Hollywood today.
The story opens with a group of slaves being marched through the woods at night, until they are forcibly liberated by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a charming travelling dentist turned deadly bounty hunter. Schultz is looking for one slave in particular, a man named Django (Jamie Foxx) who can help him identify a crew of valuable targets who have gone into hiding. Django turns out to be a natural, so this one-time deal quickly evolves into a mutually beneficial business arrangement; Schultz asks Django to help him seek out his quarry through the winter, and in return when spring comes, he promises to help Django seek out and liberate his lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). As it turns out, Django’s wife was named and taught to speak German by a previous owner, a fact which fascinates Schultz. He later relates to Django the famous Norse legend in which Broomhilda (actually a misspelling of Brünnhilde), a Valkyrie princess, was imprisoned by Odin in a ring of fire until she was eventually set free thanks to the fearlessness of the hero Siegfried. The permeation of this myth into the culture of his homeland lends weight to Schultz’s growing devotion to Django’s cause: to paraphrase his reasoning, “No German could resist helping a real-life Siegfried”.
Schultz teaches Django all the tricks of the trade, and the two become a successful team as well as good friends, much to the confusion and aggravation of almost everybody they come into contact with. When the time comes to fulfill his end of their agreement, Schultz is able to trace Broomhilda’s sale to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the effete but sinister owner of the sprawling “Candyland” plantation. Ranking high on the list of his villainous tendencies is Candy’s enthusiasm for the thankfully not-historically-accurate sport of “mandingo fighting”, in which two male slaves are pitted against each other in a gladiator-like fight to the death. Our two heroes concoct a plan of infiltration, with Django posing as a black slaver and mandingo fighting expert, and Schultz acting as a wealthy potential buyer looking to obtain one of Candie’s best fighters. I can tell you that their ruse gets them into Candyland, and I can tell you that Sam Jackson makes his appearance at this point with one of the biggest audience pops I’ve ever heard. I’d be doing the reader a disservice by revealing any of the plot beyond this point, but luckily there are a lot of other things I can talk about without spoiling the movie.
First of all, I can’t really talk about Django Unchained in any depth without addressing the one hot-button issue that’s likely to turn more people away from this film than any other. It is a film about slavery, and the majority of the characters are either slaves, slave owners, or slave traders. If that’s a wall you can’t get over, this is not a film you should go see. But for the detractors and the professionally offended who have taken to the Internet claiming that this should be a subject and setting off limits for Tarantino (or any other director), I’d have to ask why you feel that way. It’s not likeTarantino is pro slavery. This isn’t even some embarrassing but necessary bit of cinematic history like Birth of a Nation, a film about slavery sporting a cast of white actors in blackface. This is a film made in 2012 featuring several enormously successful black actors who obviously liked the script enough to get on board, and while it is undeniably a film with slavery that also contains comedic elements, those moments are uniformly at the expense of the characters doing the oppressing. How is there anybody out there trying to make the case that this is not okay? Spike Lee has famously spoken out about his refusal to see the film on the grounds that it is disrespectful to his people, and I can’t help but wonder where he’s been for Tyler Perry’s entire career. If it makes you uncomfortable, good. Slavery happened, the Holocaust happened, and so forth. Our history is littered with genocide and racially-based exploitation, and I’d much rather have films dealing with that fact than live in a world where artists are encouraged to ignore it.
That being said, the casting of Christoph Waltz was a smart move on Tarantino’s part. Not just because the man steals every scene he’s in, but also because it effectively skirts Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash historically unpleasant time periods. A lot of directors may have gone with the angle of “The South’s Most Tolerant White American”, the nonexistent archetype popularized in various films featuring Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner. Making the character a German national helps immensely with the suspension of disbelief that might otherwise be necessary. Waltz is also incredibly funny and charismatic (we’re talking about the one guy ever to play a charming SS Officer), and his perpetual likability is the key element that keeps much of the film from being too bleak to handle; most of the key characters in the story are pretty horrible people. DiCaprio turns in a solid performance as the villainous Candie, a horrible person underneath a charming exterior, who’s not half as shrewd as he thinks he is. His endless pseudo-scientific assertions regarding the supposed insurmountable biological gap separating the black man from the white man play out like the world’s most horrible Twitter feed. And the eponymous Django is easily my favorite lead performance thus far from Jamie Foxx. This is a relatively subtle character for a Tarantino script, without a lot of quirks or character hooks, and it might have been difficult for someone else in this role to spend so much time onscreen with Waltz and DiCaprio and not get overwhelmed. But Foxx nails it effortlessly.
If asked to name two things I am expecting going into a Tarantino film, they’d undoubtedly be violence and a great soundtrack, so let’s talk about those things next. The violence is as characteristically over the top as you’d expect, with Kill Bill‘s anime-inspired arterial spray giving way to a style that looks like Sam Peckinpah by way of Robert Rodriguez. Each bullet hits with the approximate force of a cannonball and results in what looks like an exploding water balloon filled with red paint. And much like the aforementioned Kill Bill it’s far too over the top and stylized to even be shocking. The death scenes that have the most impact are handled in a much more subtle way, and that reversal of expectations works to great effect. The soundtrack almost reaches the point of clutter at a couple moments, where you can practically hear the needle dragging across vinyl as another track is rushed into play. Having too many good songs to fit into a movie is a forgivable sin though, and I’ll applaud any soundtrack that can keep both Jim Croce and Rick Ross thematically relevant. I love how much original music was produced for this film, how often do movies get custom lyrics anymore?
That list probably should’ve included dialogue as well, but I like to think that people appreciate paragraphs of a certain brevity. The dialogue is more or less the same trademark Tarantino fare: fast, ornately profane, and with only a handful of period expressions separating these characters from his creations that exist 100 years down the timeline. It works though, and it leads me back to my earlier point regarding his continued success. Quentin Tarantino is one of the lucky few who has been able to build an entire career in which he makes exactly the movies he wants to see, concocted from his favorite pieces of the movies he loves. Pulp Fiction received almost universal love and acclaim because it was so different from anything else out there, but as time goes on it has been revealed for what it actually is: one of a very particular set of films, all geared for an audience of one, and if you happen to be on board great but if not nothing’s changing. If you fell off the bandwagon when Jackie Brown proved less universally quotable than Pulp Fiction, there’s probably no getting back on board now. However, if Tarantino hadn’t already lost you by Inglourious Basterds, you’ll likely be in love with Django Unchained for all the right reasons. And now, some music.
100 BLACK COFFINS
I GOT A NAME
Posted on December 29, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged Blaxploitation Western, Bruunhilde, Calvin Candie, Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, Siegfried. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.