Review: 'Django Unchained' sets rowdy and bloody fire to America's painful history
I think it's safe to say at this point that Quentin Tarantino's work speaks directly to the sensibilities that shaped me as a film fan, and when I see people dismiss his work as mere pastiche, it is infuriating. Tarantino is a thoroughly modern film artist, and his way of working is not something that would automatically work for everyone. But when he throws his various influences into a blender and creates one of his hyper-potent cinematic cocktails, the result is more than just those bits and pieces shuffled into a new order. His films speak directly to the way iconography works as a shared language for film fans, and he plays both to and against expectation in his work in ways that reveal him as one of the most sharp-witted pranksters working today.
"Django Unchained" is "Blazing Saddles" with a body count, a positively incendiary entertainment about America's greatest shame, the personal and social toll of slavery, and like Tarantino's last film, "Inglourious Basterds," this is a case of history being remixed in a way that makes more emotional sense to Tarantino as a storyteller. I don't know what instigated this switch in direction for him, but I love it. The emotional rush that hit at the end of "Basterds" was remarkable, this compelling feeling that we were getting to see something that we needed to see, no matter if it was 100% factual or not. It was emotionally correct, and that's all that mattered.
"Django" is the same way. Set a few years before the start of the Civil War, it takes place in an America where black is definitely not beautiful, where human lives are still a matter of commerce, and while the film is full of huge laughs, they are hard laughs, bitter laughs, even bloodthirsty laughs. It is an amazing piece of work, and what I found most interesting is how effortless it feels. Tarantino has often utilized some major narrative tricks with time and perspective to tell his stories, but here, it's about as straightforward as it gets. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter, hot on the trail of three brothers who used to be overseers at a plantation, and he decides that the easiest way to find them is to purchase a slave who used to live on that plantation. He tracks Django (Jamie Foxx) down to his new owners, and after a memorable encounter in the middle of a snow-covered forest, he offers Django a deal. If Django helps him identify the three men, then he will give Django his freedom.
The first section of the film is just about the slowly-evolving trust between Schultz and Django, and while I had some hesitations about Jamie Foxx before I saw the film, both he and Waltz are absolutely delightful. My fear about Foxx was that he is a very contemporary actor. My fear turned out to be totally unfounded, though, because he effortlessly dropped everything modern so that he could step into the best-written character of his career. Honestly, even without any further escalation, I would have enjoyed just watching Schultz slowly realize that Django is more than just an eyewitness. He decides to make Django his partner, and he ups the stakes in their deal. Instead of just setting Django free, he tells him that he will help Django track down the current location of his wife, Broomhilda, who was sold to a different owner than him when the two of them were caught after trying to run away together. What begins as a rowdy, irreverent romp grows more and more personal as the film wears on, eventually leading Django and Schultz to the plantation home of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), as vicious a slave owner as one could imagine.
One of the greatest joys of Tarantino's filmmakers is watching his actors bounce off of each other. Yes, he loves to write big giant chunks of dialogue, but that's because he loves letting actors take their time and really dig in. There are long sequences here where it's just about the ping-pong of these great cascades of language, and everyone seems to be positively drunk on the text. I don't know if I've ever seen DiCaprio play this kind of venal, disgusting character before, but he seems to positively relish every awful thing he gets to do or say. Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson brings a ferocious sense of menace to the role of Stephen, the slave who runs Candie's household. Stephen has a real knack for how to play the part that he is expected to play in front of white people, and Jackson expertly allows us to see which version of Stephen is the act and which version is the real Stephen. He's dangerous because the people around him constantly underestimate him, and he seems to have very little loyalty to his fellow slaves.
No one takes the same sort of delight in the words that Waltz does, though. In "Inglourious Basterds," he managed to make this deadly Nazi into a charismatic figure, almost impossible to dislike. Here, Tarantino has him working on the right side of the moral compass, and Waltz's natural charm is a big part of the appeal in the film's first half. Django has no idea what to make of this mad German and his talk of freedom, but once he realizes that everything Schultz says is for real, and once the man puts a gun in his hand, Django begins to consider him as more than just another white face. Improbably, he comes to see Schultz as a friend, and thanks to the very real chemistry between Waltz and Foxx, I buy that friendship. It makes sense. Schultz is delighted to find that Django is great with a gun, and they seem well-suited to each other in personality.
Schultz definitely comes across as an anomaly, though. There are a lot of white faces in this film who have nothing but ill will in their hearts for what they see as the faceless, sub-human blacks all around them. Don Johnson shows up as a plantation owner early in the film named "Big Daddy" Bennet, and he looks like a seedy Col. Sanders, all smiles except for his eyes. His eyes are always sizing up everyone around him, ready for violence and fully expecting it.
Kerry Washington plays Broomhilda, the ultimate goal of Django's quest, and she doesn't have a lot of time onscreen to build out her character. No matter, Washington makes the most of her scenes, and she is very effective both as the object of Django's desire and as a strong presence in her own right. We can understand why these two would be together, because they seem to take strength from each other. They inspire one another to believe that there is a life beyond chains and whips and servitude, and Django, once given the opportunity to make that possibility into something real, runs with it. He knows this is a gift, and he is determined to do whatever it takes to make it work.
The entire supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces who do expert work in sometimes minuscule roles. Zoe Bell, Amber Tamblyn, Jameses Remar and Russo, the great Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, John Jarratt, Tom Wopat, Michael Bacall, Dennis Christopher, MC Gainey, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, and the legendary Franco Nero, Django himself, all make impressions in their scenes, and it's nice to see Tarantino regulars share the screen with people new to his world. It's a great mix, and he seems to have impeccably cast people to fill out these characters.
Likewise, the technical credits on the film are flawless. Robert Richardson's photography is lush and seedy, capturing a lifestyle that is on its way out, even if no one realizes it yet. The make-up effects work done by KNB is howlingly funny at times, and if you are remotely phobic about graphic bloodspilling, this is not the film for you. There are eruptions of extreme violence that are shocking and hilarious at the same time. During one shoot-out, the same person gets shot something like 20 times, each time screaming as a new geyser of blood erupts from wherever they were hit. Tarantino borders on a Monty Python level of graphic violence here, and that's perfectly in tune with the films he's paying homage to. For most people, "spaghetti western" means Sergio Leone and little else, but I think he's really paying tribute to the lesser known gems of the genre, frequently forgotten but aggressively sleazy at times. The blood spilled in many of those films was impossibly red and shockingly plentiful, and that's the order of the day for "Django" as well.
What makes this more than just a revenge film, though, and more than just a genre exercise, is the deeply felt anger that simmers just below the surface of the portrayal of this world. There was a time in the not so distant past where white Americans routinely bought and sold black Americans, and while you can read that in a history book and understand it intellectually, we are still afraid to really deal with it on film because of the emotions it understandably stirs up. Here, Tarantino makes sure to rub your nose in just how ugly a world this was, enough so that when Django finally draws his guns and starts dispensing justice, it is hard not to cheer him on. This is a world where might makes right, and Schultz inspires Django, gives him the might he needs to do the job right.
The soundtrack is littered with great cues that really drive this as an emotional experience, and overall, it is a film that I felt on a deep internal level. I could pull it apart intellectually and explain what I love about it, but it all comes down to the surge of fury and emotion that raced through me as Django stood his ground, determined to pay back Calvin Candie and those around him for every indignity, every sorrow, every split back, every shattered family. Django's gunfire is more than just the path to freedom for Broomhilda; it is the method by which a better world is forged, using blood and bodies as the required building materials. And midway through the credits, there is one final image that punched me hard in the gut, a reminder that when you give someone freedom who has never had it, they may not know what to do with it, and it takes more to truly change someone than just the turn of a key.
Tarantino talks often of quitting as a filmmaker, but when he continues to turn out work this vital and alive, I hope that remains the idle chatter between each recharge of his battery, because his voice is one of the true treasures of modern movies, with "Django" simply the latest entry in one of the most interesting filmographies today.
"Django Unchained" will burn the world down on Christmas Day.