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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012): Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson.  Rated R for:  It’s a Tarantino revenge film about slavery.  What do you think it’s rated “R” for?  Pony chases?  Running time: 165 minutes.

Rating:  3.5/4 Stars
Tarantino has grown on me slowly- very slowly- as a Director.  Although I still can’t call myself a fan of Inglorious Bastards, his last film prior to Django, I have come to respect the fact that he is one of the few directors able to make precisely the sort of films he likes, with as much of his own personal styles and techniques as he wants, even when I don’t always personally take to the final product.  I am also intrigued by how he likes to throw together wildly different (and sometimes very obscure) subgenres of film in ways that deliberately turn them on their heads. 

            Django, his latest venture into pop culture-topsy-turvy-dom, is a prime example of this, combining the traditional lone-man-revenge-fantasy (ala Taken) with the style and setting of a spaghetti western (ala anything with Clint Eastwood in it).  This time, however, instead of the morally ambiguous-yet-righteously-infuriated white man dealing out punishment, it’s a black man, and a freed slave at that.

            Said freed slave is Django (Jamie Foxx), who soon becomes Django Freeman when he is “purchased” from his chain gang by wandering dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr. Schultz (played to a T by the always-dependable Christoph Waltz).  Initially wanting Django’s help identifying 3 bounties he’s chasing, Schultz is so impressed with Django’s natural skills as a gunman that the two form a partnership, which quickly becomes a confidant friendship as well.  As they go on one bounty hunt after another (at one point having a run-in with a KKK-style horse gang that could have come straight out of a Mel Brooks movie), Schultz learns that Django plans to one day find his sold wife, Broomhilda.  The name, of German origin, reminds Schultz of an old German legend, where a hero saves a beautiful princess trapped in a ring of hellfire.  Inspired by this association, Schultz hatches a plan to find and purchase Broomhilda from her current owner, Calvin Candie, and rescue her from the real-world hellfire of slavery. 

            And that is where the film really kicks into high gear.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie is as slimy, vile and unredeemable a bad guy as anyone could wish for, although the REAL villain of Candieland (the name of Candie’s plantation….no really) eventually proves to be Candie’s head slave Stephen, a brilliantly perverse twist on more benign, familiar, Uncle Tom-esque characters.  Watching Schultz and Django slowly worm their way, inch by inch, into Candieland while Stephen, ever suspicious, tries to figure out what’s really going on, is a lot of fun to watch, especially since every actor in every role is a ton of fun to watch.  Christoph Waltz more than earns his second Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor, but DiCaprio or Jackson would have been just as deserving, to say nothing of Jamie Foxx being passed over for Best Actor. 

            I really, really liked Django.  Since I’ve had at least some previous experience with the Western films Tarantino is fiddling around with, I was able to note and appreciate the occasional riffs he takes on the genre.  Plus, as someone who is generally not a fan of the one-man armies out for blood type of movies that are so enduringly popular, I also appreciated watching Tarantino push the revenge motif to its logical extreme in the blood-splattered third act.  The acting is phenomenal across the board, and the cinematography is creative, including one fantastic (and absurdly appropriate) shot of a dead slaver’s blood splattering a batch of snow-white cotton.       

            Of course, this has been far from an uncontroversial film, with many accusing it of being racist, insensitive to slavery by turning it into the subject of an exploitation film.  While I can understand some people thinking this when first hearing the plot of the film (I certainly did), after having seen it, I feel that calling Django racist or insensitive by depicting slavery in a revenge film (or because of how often it uses the word “nigger”) is like saying the same about Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  That is, arguments of the sort kind of miss the point of the movie.  Rather than “minimalizing” slavery, or merely exploiting it for its most gruesome aspects (meaning pretty much ALL its aspects), Django is often at its most serious and earnest when focusing on the horrors of slavery in the Old South. 

            The thing is, it’s very easy for us to forget not only how truly horrible slavery was (and still is, in many parts of the world), but also how, especially in this country, it was so effectively dressed up as something “natural” or “normal”, often justified by twisted science or theology.  And, for all of Tarantino’s over-the-top, juvenile tendencies, Django is full of a lot of wry and brutally sharp, yet largely unspoken, commentary on Southern slavery’s paradoxical existence; a whip-happy field manager with pages of the Bible stapled into his shirt, gleaming white mansions manned entirely by black staff, a plantation owner’s tortured attempt to explain to his slave girls what a “free” black man is.  That’s perhaps what really draws me to Django Unchained- as someone who is constantly frustrated with our culture’s tendency to brush over America’s history with slavery, it’s refreshing to see a film that manages to bring it front and center using both over-the-top, brutal directness AND poignant subtlety. 

            Ultimately, not everyone will like Django, and not everyone will agree with my opinion of it, but I do urge people to see this movie BEFORE pronouncing it racist or insensitive.  Does Tarantino go over the top at times with the blood?  Absolutely.  And the rest of the film is hardly flawless.  Many critics have already pointed out the absence of a “strong female character” (a double-edged argument if ever there was one), as Broomhilda just sort of pops in and out as needed.  Yes, it is unfortunate that Django doesn’t upend EVERY cliché or convention it’s poking fun at, but given how many different cultural norms Tarantino is trying to force into a headlock, I’ll forgive him for letting one slip through the cracks.  If you think you can handle the gore, definitely see this movie.  If not, but you still want to get a healthy dose of perspective on the legacy of slavery, watch Lincoln.  Which is also excellent. 

-Judge Richard  

2 comments:

  1. Best Actor for Jamie Foxx? Yeah? One of the things that kept the movie at a distance for me was his character - I thought Django was pretty bland. Not very relatable or particularly likable. I didn't think Jamie Foxx was able to pull off the revenge character as well as Uma Thurman does in Kill Bill (and I also think she has a more fleshed out and complex character in Kill Bill which helps).

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  2. That's partly because he's playing alongside a bunch of characters who are hugely over-the-top, or who get the best one-liners, so at first it feels like he's being overshadowed. I personally felt he did a great job being the counterweight to all the ridiculous antics of the people surrounding him- when he's around the white people, he's purposefully subdued and quieter because he's learned he has to be. I have not seen Kill Bill, so my opinion may change if I were to see that. At any rate, I would have been happier seeing Jamie Foxx on the nominee list than I was seeing Bradley Cooper.

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