Movie Review: Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Reviewed: 1 January 2013
Going to see a QT film is an event for me. No modern director looms as large as QT in my cinematic consciousness, and I expect more from a Tarantino film than from any other kind of film. In the early nineties, I discovered "Reservoir Dogs" through audio clips of Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen spouting nasty dialogue as it was played by Jay Marvin on his WLS Chicago AM talk radio program. After renting "Reservoir Dogs" on VHS from Nu-Time Video in ninth grade, I bought the soundtrack and memorized the film's speeches. I think I was struck then by the music and the profanity, the assuredness of stories well-told by great actors. In eleventh grade instead of going to the Homecoming Dance, my friend Ed and I went to the Yorktown Theater to see "Pulp Fiction" on opening weekend, and its viewing remains a turning point for my film education. The fall of 1994 was the moment when film exploded with possibilities and I began wanting to know more. It was when the fingerprint of a director, an auteur, became worth knowing and more important for me than the actors involved. I took a film class the next semester and jumped into David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, and Alfred Hitchcock. And for me, Tarantino is one of my guides, pushing me to study his films and examine why I loved them. I have seen every Tarantino film in order, and post-"Reservoir Dogs" all have been seen in the theater. "Pulp Fiction" was seen many times, and then "Jackie Brown" on opening day one Christmas in college, and then "Kill Bill, Volume 1," which felt incomplete without "Kill Bill, Volume 2," followed by "Death Proof" and the audacious "Inglorious Basterds."
And now we come to his eighth film, "Django Unchained."
"Django Unchained" offers one of the most unique and disturbing stories of this year and it has to be considered as one of the year's best. German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees slave Django (Jaime Foxx) in order to help him hunt down and kill people for money. Schultz needs Django's knowledge of slavers and partners with him in exchange for agreeing to help locate Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the infamous Candyland plantation in Mississippi, site of vicious mandingo fighting. So, Tarantino's film is a western revenge film. A freed slave with deadly accuracy unites with the silver-tongued wordsmith (and phenomenally fast draw), and they make their way across the South, posing as slavers to secure the confidence of Candie and rescue Broomhilda.
My initial impression is that "Django Unchained" contains all the exhilaration and daring expected of a Tarantino film with strong performances from the taciturn Foxx, the garrulous Waltz, and the mannered DiCaprio. DiCaprio in particular is a marvel as the nefarious slave owner whose evil is belied with his hand gestures, codes of civility, and fastidious dress. I liked seeing him deliver Tarantino's dialogue. Stalwart and five-time Tarantino film veteran Samuel L. Jackson plays a minor role to the hilt, and supporting actors are each memorable in small sequences. There is comedy (in particular, a scene of a nighttime raid) that works, though most of the film is not what I would describe as either fun or funny.
I have never seen slavery depicted in film beyond the horrible whipping scenes in "Glory" in 1989. I've read nearly all of William Faulkner's Mississippi with its post-Civil War defeated culture. I've seen Griffith's haunting "Birth of a Nation." However, I was unprepared for the depiction of a fully functional Southern plantation in the middle of this film. It is not just for its viciousness and cruelty (which there is certainly enough of, and the sight of a person being whipped seems more violent and disturbing than ever). And it is not just the history of seeing actors standing and playing roles in the same spaces that served as actual plantations less than two hundred years ago. It was that brutality juxtaposed with gentility. There is something despicable and haunting about seeing manners, fastidious dress, and fine dinner service contrasted with the horrors of slavery: the subjugating of human beings, the separation of lovers, the description of men and women as show ponies. Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen drink tea and lemonade and engage in civilities while a human being is kept in a metal hotbox out in the scorching Mississippi sun.
Tarantino's camera zooms in quickly on characters' faces, showing quick reaction shots in a manner which must be alluding to a particular film or style that I do not know. He continues his penchant for structuring his film in chapters and lovingly draping music throughout. A James Brown & 2Pac song was a highlight for me. Tarantino's script, at first glance, seems to be his weakest with a blood-soaked final third where style at times can overwhelm story. Waltz has a lovely moment of crisis late in the film, and the story is simply weaker when Waltz is not onscreen. Kerry Washington's Broomhilda needed more to do. Not every strand of the story pulls together or works. And yet, in signature Tarantino style, I could watch all of his characters interact for a ten hour movie instead of a nearly three hour one. The man knows how to craft story and character.
There are haunting moments from "Django Unchained" that will never leave me. The close-up shots on Waltz's face as he flashes back to a horrific violent incident and seems to settle his mind upon a course of action. The wearing of medieval slave masks and the barbarity of torture. The spooky masked riders appearing over the edge of a hill at night. Dr. Schultz's use of a ruler to level off a beer drawn from the saloon. The blood-sprayed cotton plant. There are the speeches that Tarantino's characters are known for giving, and there's an astounding amount of blood-splattering violence (Ed Mattis calls it "Gallagher-esque" which seems quite right to me). Nothing in the avalanche of gunfire in the film's final third compares with two earlier sequences of violence (one never shown fully shown as two slaves grapple brutally inside of an elegant plantation parlor within feet of Candie as he comments on the action and coaches; one occurring in the forests surrounding Candyland as he metes out barbaric punishment to a runaway slave. Both sequences are stomach-turning, eye-closing, and difficult to watch. And necessary. Tarantino is infusing a deeply American story and iconography (the western revenge saga, the cowboy tale) with its blood-soaked roots, yet still retaining his flair for visual power and the power of violence, both seen and unseen. A shot of white cotton plants sprayed in one character's blood occurs mid-film and seems a signature shot to me. There was always blood on that cotton plant, whether we see it or chose not to see it.
Later in the film, when Candie notes Schultz's squeamishness at one of the aforementioned violent acts, Django utters something about Dr. Schultz "not being as used to America as I am" which cuts to the heart of this film. No audience could be prepared for "Django Unchained," and Tarantino's mastery over his art takes us to dark, unseen places in American culture and history. The film is a significant achievement.