Release: Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Finally someone let Tarantino off HIS chain so he could function at a much higher level — and that is of course, to our great benefit. And it is this I shout louder over many other shouting people, in an effort to laud the director on what may well be his best work thus far. I was a little slow on getting to the theater (Christmas shopping and traffic can be a bitch) but now I understand all the hype surrounding it. Except for Spike Lee. I’m still ignoring him.
Quentin Tarantino knocks ’em dead with Django Unchained, a love story plucked out of pre-Civil War America (places and times aren’t ultra-specific, but you can infer from just a few racial epithets right off the bat). It’s a bold, visionary and violent story of justice and redemption that centers around a recently freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who is willing to do what is necessary to reunite with and emancipate his beautiful wife, Broomhilda, from whom he has been separated courtesy of a slave trade some years ago. On the way to accomplishing that personal goal, he helps a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), settle some of his vendettas by providing what the bounty hunter would later call ‘the fastest guns in the South,’ slaying several of Shultz’s most wanted in extremely efficient and rapid succession.
Indeed, the bodies do start to pile up. The trail of victims — those of which are not without their evils — begins with a trio of merciless slave traders, the Brittle brothers (Tom Savini, M.C. Gainey, and Gerald McRaney), and are simultaneously on the bounty hunter’s and Django’s Most Wanted list — for Django, it’s slightly more personal. Further out in the open country, beyond the Brittle brothers, lies a path filled with other criminals and evil-doers — including brief cameos from an incredible list: Kurt Russell, Don Johnson, Anthony LaPaglia, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonah Hill. Django’s oddball German partner points this fact out more than a few times; however, the slaying of his former captors and torturers seemed to be all the use of a trigger finger Django ever needed.
That is, of course, until the trail leads the pair to Mississippi, where he learns that’s where he may find his wife. Django and Shultz ride on horseback through dense networks of slave trades and slave routes; towns simply filled to the brim with the sort of atrocities the country had become decadent in defending as the status quo. Although one bit of justice has been served in slaying the ruthless Brittle brothers, Django’s personal hell is only just beginning.
Here, amid long lines of slave traffic all dressed up in all sorts of awkward metal contraptions that look more like weapons meant to distance one slave from the next; here against the muddy backdrop of this sorry state of affairs, Django’s road only starts to grow darker. There have been bodies piling up the entire way through, but once he’s finally been shown one particular neck of the woods, the infamous Candieland Plantation, life goes from bad to worse. It is on the bounty hunter’s good word that this is where Broomhilda still is working as a slave for one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a particularly narrow-minded and brutal slave owner.
The thematic elements of Django Unchained were perfect matches for Tarantino’s typical grisly style of filmmaking. God knows what compendium of documents he is going to cite that accurately depict some of the ways slaveowners treated their property in this haunting epic, but it is quite apparent he did his homework. Throughout the film we become spectators to people being viciously whipped, torn apart by hungry dogs, frozen and then immediately thawed out, and hung, among other cruel and unusual punishments. The one thing you can almost be sure of despite Tarantino’s other fare, though, is that these graphic moments of torture were not self-aggrandizing creations. They were rooted in historical happenings. As is often the case in his films, the violence is often excruciating, but it is justified to the highest degree. In this latest example, when Django finally asserts his dominance over former slave owners and inevitably, over the entire plantation in one gloriously bloody scene, the bloodletting and gore becomes a spectacle that is unusually enjoyable. Such guilty pleasures are defining elements of the Tarantino film reel, and certainly Django is off the chain in that regard.
This time, Tarantino’s cleverly disguising his high-brow sense of rectifiable violence in an American society ripped apart by the issue of slavery. Steven Spielberg had something to say on the subject as well, but he focused more on the presidential leadership and how those in power could possibly control/end the situation by way of passing legal documentation, whereas Tarantino had no problem with sticking his hands in the mud and mixing it up until it formed something palpable to sell from a narrower angle. Oh, ho-ho, was it more than sell-able. It was visually arresting, and most importantly educational in its revealing of one of the nation’s darkest times in history.
The best thing that Tarantino and crew could have done — and did — was to get the story up off the ground as quickly and feasibly as possible, avoiding what could easily turn into a lecture if not directed properly. In some of his works, there have been rather extensive expositions to set up characters, plot and other overriding elements that make his films what they are. In this outing, time is not wasted. When Django is first sighted by a passing carriage driver (who would soon become known as the quick wit and our beloved German bounty hunter Dr. Shultz) in the opening scene, only a few minutes have passed and already we’re being dragged into a dramatic and compelling storyline. Once he’s ‘off the chain’ the journey thereafter is destined to be a classic.
Even if that does sound rather biased, try watching the film for yourself and then telling me afterwards that you weren’t rooting for Django. I mean, come on. Never has peer pressure been so rightfully persuasive. . . and morally obligatory. No, no, and don’t even think that you SHOULD root for him, either. You just end up. . . .rooting for him anyway. What his character goes through for the sake of rescuing his wife should at minimum have you invested in Foxx’s inspirational role. Not to mention the indecent time this story is etched into.
Add to that the brilliance of Chris Waltz’s performance as Dr. Shultz, an eloquently-spoken and amiable (though still by profession, a questionable) man and you have a really dynamic and compelling partnership. Not to mention, as indicated by many of the gawking looks on the faces of passing townsfolk, a rare one. He is a free man, but it’s still not fun for him. No one expects to see a black man riding a horse, and those passing stares are stark evidence of how racist the country was at the time.
The lines get further blurred, when Django becomes coerced into fronting as a black slave owner. This gimmick is forced upon him by doc Shultz since they needed a credible means of passing through many of the digs they wind up passing through. Through many parts they get away with the get-up. Then, when the film hits its all-time pull-your-hair-out-from-the-stress level (most of which is generated from the racial tension; the ‘n’ word is dropped 146 times), Django’s past becomes more and more evident. His wife is confirmed as a housemaid for the sick-twisted Calvin character — who’s more like a snarling caricature thanks to an intense performance turned in by the ever-improving DiCaprio — and it sets off alarm bells in Django’s head, thus laying out the blueprint for the final, sure-to-be-messy showdown. Customary Tarantino fare, sure. But brilliantly served on a steaming, silver platter.
Perhaps the ultimate story arc, that of Django and Broomhilda’s, is the only thing worth all the bloodshed, maltreatment of virtually every black person on screen, and the continual sense of backpedaling we get from whatever small accomplishments Django and Shultz seem to be able to earn. It’s understood that for every success Django has, thousands elsewhere continue to suffer and never become freed. The movie certainly does not ignore that fact, but it also need not be concerned with whatever else is going on across the land. Sweeping through the southeast, the tale of Django pursuing his long lost lover is an appropriate magnifying glass.
Take away the bloodshed — or maybe even inspired by an overwhelming presence of it — it is a very romantic film that winds up far more wholesome in its message than many of his previous releases. There is still the same thread of dark humor throughout, though, that tries to balance out the film’s more gritty and punishing attributes. More than a few scenes manage to steer away from sinking into too deep a rut with all the hate-speech, including one memorable KKK digression into disgust of their own attire. All of the Tarantino films weave a rich, darkly comic story of redemption — hardcore, often bone-chilling redemption at that, but none feel so earnest as that of Django’s final triumph.
Recommendation: For historical purposes, for romantic reasons, for pure popcorn entertainment, Django Unchained appeals to many palates. Its romanticism is surely the winning item here, but also getting to see Django unleash his fury was about as satisfying as I was hoping for it to be. On some levels it rose above those expectations. This was my favorite Quentin Tarantino picture, far and away.
Rated: R (for racist remarks?)
Running Time: 166 mins.
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