Movie Review: Django Unchained

Django and Candie

Quentin Tarantino is, and always has been, a provocateur, and his latest film, Django Unchained, gives us Tarantino at his provocative best.  Using slavery and the antebellum south as his backdrop, Tarantino delivers his homage to the spaghetti western in the only way he knows how… brutal, bloody, and unforgiving… and it may be his best film yet.

Beginning two years before the civil war, 1858, we are introduced to our two protagonists in the opening scene; Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter searching for a trio of wanted men, and Django (Jamie Foxx), the slave who knows what they look like.  Much like the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, the tension is immediate and impressive.  We, the audience, are given just enough information at any given time to make every scene drip with fear, to ride that line between total chaos and calm, and it’s that line where this film dances on for almost 3 hours to amazing effect.

As the relationship between Dr. Shultz and Django grows, so does an understanding of what Django is after and how it is that Dr. Shultz can help him, while also helping himself.  Dr. Shultz wants money… Django wants his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  For all that has been made about this film being about revenge or vengeance… bah!  This is a love story… an ultra-violent, race-baiting, exploitative love story.  Plus, a buddy movie in the vein of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  In fact, every film trope known to westerns rears it’s head at some point and manages to feel fresh and new in a way that only Tarantino could accomplish.

Let me get one thing out of the way… I do not worship at the feet of Quentin Tarantino.  I’ve enjoyed the majority of his films, consider some to be outright classics, but I also see the bloat and excess present in almost everything he has done.  considering that Django Unchained runs at a little over 2 hours and 45 minutes, I was concerned that the film could drag or have that bloated feel that can come when a director is so enamored with himself that he doesn’t know how to edit… but that concern was unfounded.  The script felt tight, every scene moved with a pulsating push towards the inevitable, and the soundtrack, as is usual for him, was stellar and anachronistic in the best ways possible, not over wrought, but obviously well thought out and placed.

This is not a comfortable film, and I don’t believe it was meant to be… it’s meant to stir something inside you… it’s meant to anger you, to shove in your face the horrors and injustices that men commit upon each other, to make you squirm and feel the need to cower behind your fingers… but I say to you… do not cover your eyes, stare at the screen unblinkingly, because you will never be forced to see anything too horrendous.  Tarantino is a master of off screen atrocities, incidents which occur in his films that give him such a bad reputation for the excessive violence in his movies, but, you never see these things occur.  Do you think you saw Michael Madsen cut off the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs?  No… you didn’t.  Do you ever see anyone’s head get blow off in Pulp Fiction?  Not directly… no.  That is also the case in Django Unchained… there is a great deal of violence… a whole lot of blood… and more than one scene that will (and should) make your stomach turn, but you won’t find anything offensive onscreen (or rather, nothing too gory) other than what is coming out of people’s mouths… which to our 21st. century ears should offend.

Which brings us to the real villains of the story… southerners.  No… I kid, not all southerners… but throughout their journeys they come across a number of people that would easily fall under the banner of villain, but reserving that top spot for one man and one location… Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Francophile dandy who insists on being called Monsieur Candie yet doesn’t speak any French himself,  and his plantation, CandieLand.  It is here at CandieLand that the second half of the second act and the whole of the third act occur… it is here at CandieLand where we will finally meet and find Broomhilda… it is here at CandieLand that the true horrors of the antebellum south come into focus and the brutality of little men are on full display.

Quick side note… I love that the most racially sensitive person throughout the entire film is the German bounty hunter.  Without Dr. Shultz’s overall decency, much of what happens from beginning to explosive end would not have occurred.

Being a native of California, the horrors of slavery have always been academic to me.  A few years ago I went to New Orleans on vacation and visited many of the museums and found myself gaping in disgust at the images and implements of slavery and all it entailed… and CandieLand would be the nightmare I would imagine.

This is DiCaprio’s first villainous role, and he seems to be enjoying every moment.  In fact, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves immeasurably throughout this entire movie… which sounds very strange considering the subject matter, but I don’t imagine any actor could give the performances that they gave without having somewhat of a good time… and I was shocked at how many amazing actors popped up throughout… Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Tom Savini, Zoe Bell (whose face is covered the whole time), and of course, Samuel L. Jackson in his fifth collaboration with Tarantino.  His role is a special one… as he put it, he is the most hated negro in history, and every scene he appears in is that much better for his presence.

Although I knew the basic premise going into this, I was pleasantly surprised along the way.  Gorgeously filmed, appropriately scored, remarkably strong performances, and an almost flawless script conspire to make one of the best films I’ve seen in years, and possibly the best film of the year in my opinion (although I still think Moonrise Kingdom gets that honor from me).  I’m sure when the Oscar nominations start floating about in earnest this will be talked about, but roundly ignored… not the Academy’s usual fare… and lord knows Tarantino has been looked over before (hello 1994), but don’t be shocked if this doesn’t at least pick up a few nominations if not the award for best screenplay.

Unless you are a delicate flower… a sensitive type who doesn’t go for a lot of bloodshed and violence… I would implore you to see this movie.  A well made homage to a tired genre that manages to feel fresh and inspired… Django Unchained is a must see.

Bye Miss. Lara,
Cornelius J. Blahg 

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