Film Review: Django Unchained (2012)

11:49 AM

From left to right: Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz

The year is 1858, two years shy of the American Civil War. A trail of chained male slaves stumble in a line, victims of the slave trading Speck Brothers. Finding themselves in a dark, hooded forest, the group is met by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist, who is looking to purchase a slave, one Django (Jamie Foxx). Freed by Schultz, Django aids him first in identifying a trio of wanted men, and subsequently becomes Schultz's partner. The two make an agreement to work through the winter, collecting rewards for assassinating wanted fugitives, after which, Schultz agrees to help Django locate and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the slave-dealing, plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). 

Django Unchained could be the Spaghetti Western prequel to Inglourious Basterds. Always a fan of intertextuality, Tarantino seems to love incorporating his personal favourite styles into his films - though never has it been quite so obvious. Kill Bill vol. 2 (2004) left the blood and gore of the Japanese slasher  scene of Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003) and opened on the sepia-cast Bride continuing her mission of revenge, now in a more merciful cowboy tone. Similarly, Tarantino references westerns and cowboys in Inglourious Basterds and mirrors the visual styles of classic Spaghetti Westerns, in particular, John Ford's The Searchers (1956). While Tarantino is playing with the genre on a smaller scale in his previous films, he explodes onto the Western scene, guns blazing in Django Unchained. 

And it's fucking awesome.

Among many highlights, the audience is treated to stunning panoramic shots against  the backdrop of America's deep south and to the wildly fun soundtrack (which coincidentally, has been the only music I've played for the last week), dotted with classic Ennio Morricone scores and character theme songs  (click to listen to Django's theme). Among many memorable scenes, Django presents cases of sheer badassery with a legendary shootout accompanied by a 2Pac/James Brown mashup, and the absolutely hilarious sequence in which a group of Ku Klux Klan members argue over the position of the eye holes in their white hoods. "Well if all I hadda do was cut a bag, I could cut it better than this."

Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie

A disappointment I wasn't expecting however, is Christoph Waltz's character, Schultz. Waltz's sudden appearance in the beginning of the film, emerging from the forest with little explanation but with plenty of charm and wit, recalls his introduction as the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009). Schultz's manner is a near perfect representation of Landa. However,while both have an amiable air, it is Schultz that truly has good intentions, though they are rarely morally sound. I remember seeing Inglourious Basterds for the the first time in 2009, and thinking as I left the theatre that this actor who I had never heard of (Waltz) had just delivered one of the most mesmerizing performances I'd ever seen in a film. Sadly, for me Waltz's performance in Django, while compelling, feels like an empty copy of his role as Landa. The director himself, Quentin Tarantino is also disappointing in his small, but distracting role as a transporter of slaves. He completely overstays his welcome on-screen, only made worse by his absolutely atrocious Australian accent. Tarantino should take a few cues from Hitchcock on how to properly make a cameo. It has to be short and sweet, just enough to cast a wink at the audience as the puppeteer of the film, and then move along. In the theatre, the initial laughs of recognition at his arrival on-screen, soon became sighs while everyone no doubt wondered whether or not anyone was going to shoot him to make him stop talking. Fortunately, the nuances in acting end there. Jamie Foxx is perfectly cast in the title role of Django, playing the tough ex-slave who will stop at nothing to get what he wants while also mastering some of the absurdities of the role - a sideways glance here, a full-on blue velvet suit, while on horseback here. Easily, the most compelling performances come from Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, the owner of Django's wife, Broomhilda among other things, and from Stephen, his however racist, African-American house-slave played by Samuel L. Jackson, almost unrecognizable if not for his unmistakeable "I will fuck you up" glare. 

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen

While I found Django Unchained enormously entertaining from start to finish, I think it's important to acknowledge the controversy that has surrounded the film since its inception. One of the names I keep hearing in the news today in conjunction with this film is the director Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing), who said via his Twitter page that "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them". Interestingly enough, Spike Lee has yet to see the film and has claimed that he doesn't even plan on ever seeing it [x]. In the case of Django, the graphic violence and the use of the N-word are so integral to the film. The violence is meant to evoke visceral reactions and the N-word is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. In 2013, its unnatural to see and hear these kinds of things, and so these performances are serving as disturbing but none the less true accounts of the horrors that African-Americans faced during those times. Everyone seems to have their own opinion on this aspect of the film and what's great is that discussions are happening about a subject that always seemed very taboo to discuss. It'll be interesting to see how this issue unfolds in the coming year. 

Overall, Django Unchained was just an incredible film to see - definitely a new favourite Tarantino, maybe even an all-time favourite!

9.5 cats out of 10

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