Movie review: Django Unchained
A slave set free by a German bounty hunter takes the South by storm
Posted: January 16, 2013
Django, get your gun. Hell hath no fury like a slave scorned, especially if his woman is now the property of a nasty slave owner.
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino's love letter to the Western. It's not a popular genre today, although the Coen brothers with some modest success tried to revive it with their 2010 film, True Grit. But Tarantino, the golden boy of cinema for the past 20 years whose name has unduly become synonymous with the gratuitous depiction of violence, has the magic touch, and proves his mastery of the art form once again.
The film is excessively violent, but, among the slow-motion explosions of blood as if from flesh volcanoes, there is an incredible story of one man's quest to find the woman he loves and reclaim her from her owner. With the exception of the film's climactic shootout, which puts the bloodletting of The Wild Bunch to shame and ends with a manor house whose walls are covered in blood from the floor to the ceiling, the pace is mostly steady and not a single moment is wasted.
What will stir viewers' attention more than anything else, however, is the language of the film. It is unlikely that the word "nigger" has ever been used this often by white characters in a film. Occurring more than 100 times, it pervades their speech to such an extent that it is tough to remember whether skin color is ever explicitly mentioned. Tarantino gets away with it, because even though the word is used almost as frequently as an article, it never ceases to remind us of the time and place the central character, a freed black slave, is up against.
The former slave is the titular Django (Jamie Foxx), who is set free by the German dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who travels on horseback, followed by a wooden coffin with a plastic tooth on top bobbing up and down as he crosses the South in search of those wanted by the law.
**** Directed by Quentin Tarantino
With Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington
Schultz is a peculiar creature who doesn't seem to mind violence - besides, he is a perfect shot - as long as he gets the guy. He forms an instant bond with Django, mostly because he needs Django's help in tracking down three brothers worth a lot of money dead or alive, and Schultz prefers them dead. But when Django tells Schultz about his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (yes, of course the surname is a reference to the big-name '70s blaxploitation movie), sold to a big slaveowner, the German bounty hunter has a personal interest in ensuring his friend and colleague gets his wife back.
We thus find ourselves watching a quest, and it is every bit as exciting as Tarantino's two Kill Bill films, in which the central character pierced and sliced her way with a samurai sword until she reached the object of her affection. However, Django Unchained has about 30 minutes of post-climactic appendage that go off on a tangent.
This final act is separated from the film's first two hours by an extended shootout, bloody to the point of excess, that sees Tarantino struggle to keep things together. He satisfies us with small details in that final part, including his explosive presence as an Australian slaver and some beautiful shots right before the end credits start to roll, but, in retrospect, this last section seems a big digression that doesn't have the same driving force as the rest of the film.
The duo of Foxx and Waltz sounds like an odd couple, but Dr. Schultz - a character that calls to mind Waltz's role in Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds - has a playful, almost childlike streak that is captivating, if one can overlook his penchant for shooting people through the head.
Foxx, playing a variety of roles that sees him as both a slave and a slaver, a lover and an assassin, is by far the coolest cucumber in the story, though Tarantino uses those Sergio Leone kind of extreme close-ups on his eyes for poignant moments, and this tactic works like a charm. It is no coincidence that the music of Ennio Morricone, a composer associated with Leone's films, also features in Django Unchained.
Aside from the many gunshots and the cussing, the film also has some slave-on-slave ultimate fighting to the death, called "Mandingo," and as the film takes place shortly before the Civil War, there is an epic scene with Klansmen.
It is Samuel L. Jackson who steals the show, perhaps to the detriment of the film. As a slave who has lived with his master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), for so long he now shares Candie's disdain for blacks, he is truly odious, a traitor to all the oppressed people around him, to freedom and justice, too, as he revels in the authority his connection with the white Candie grants him.
The film is certainly not intended to be a very serious discussion about slavery, but it is a very entertaining one, and it doesn't ignore the importance of past iniquities. This might come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn't, as Inglourious Basterds already proved Tarantino a skilled craftsman even when dealing with the suppression and extermination of Jews during World War II.
It is no easy feat for a film to keep our attention for nearly three hours, but the director succeeds effortlessly. His style of entertainment necessarily includes people being shot to a bloody pulp, but when they're all really bad guys, one tends to have fewer ethical objections, especially when everything is so clearly "just a film."
Mr. Tarantino, to quote Calvin Candie, "You had my curiosity; now you have my attention."
André Crous can be reached at