“Django Unchained” – Film Review
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino once again entangles the annals of history with a fantastical blood soaked revenge tale in “Django Unchained.” Whereas in his previous historical outing, “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino aims his guns at Hitler and his Nazis, in “Django Unchained,” his new targets are the vicious white slavers of the American south and the one house slave who truly loved them.
The film takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War. This is where we meet our odd-couple heroes, Django, acted with deadpan accuracy by Jamie Foxx, and his flawed quirk-fest of a mentor, Dr. Schultz, played to perfect comic timing by Christoph Waltz.
We first encounter Django being marched in chains to auction by two dimwitted slave dealers. On this merry scene, in rides Dr. Schultz inquiring after the whereabouts of some unlawful vermin known as the Brittle brothers. Risking the wrath of his captors, Django bravely speaks up and offers aid to Schultz in tracking the Brittles. Naturally Schultz, being the racially enlightened bounty hunting German that he is, offers Django his freedom in exchange for tracking help.
Upon finding the Brittles, Django wastes no time and makes quick bullet riddled mincemeat of the trio. Impressed with Django’s natural killing skills, Shultz decides to take him under wing and train him in the art of federally sanctioned killing for tax payer money – i.e. bounty hunting. They then both proceed, spaghetti western style, to shoot their way through the South while picking up hefty government bounties, all to the background tunes of 1970s folk music wrapped in contemporary gangster rap. In other words, in typical Quentin Tarantino style.
In between bouts of bullets, some of the best moments of levity are seen in the oddball dealings of Dr. Schultz. Always complicating the simple, he’s like the half Dr. Dolittle, half Nutty Professor of the gun toting south. Even though he starts out as playing mentor to Django, he eventually morphs into the plucky white sidekick of our straight-laced black hero.
Eventually, their journey leads them to the depraved Monsieur Calvin Candie and his Candyland Plantation. While there, Shultz and Django are on a mission to free Broomhilda, Django’s enslaved wife, who is played to the traumatized hilt by Kerry Washington.
Leonardo DiCaprio fleshes out the cast as the cruel and decadent master of Candyland, Calvin J. Candie. His almost effete presentation helps Quentin Tarantino place the performed atrocities at the plantation in stark relief to the superficial presentation of Candie’s antebellum southern hospitality. Candie seems to be comically unaware of the hypocrisy of insisting on pseudo-Gallic styled gentility while forcing black slaves to fight to the death for his afternoon teatime amusement. With the introduction of Candie and his atrocities, the film takes a more serious turn. However, never fear, “Django Unchained” quickly moves back to its black comedy aesthetic with the debut of one of the most simultaneously uncomfortable and hilarious performances of a blacksploitation styled Uncle Tom ever put to cinema.
Samuel L. Jackson is pitch perfect as Stephen, Monsieur Candie’s head house slave, who appears to be in the unenviable position of being both chattel and father figure to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie. In everyway that Schultz is Django’s mentor, Stephen is Candie’s. Stephen is inhuman in his willingness to encourage and nurture Candie’s cruelty at the expense of his persecuted black brethren. His ease at instantaneously switching between mild-mannered and beleaguered house slave to cold and calculating puppet master is at once hilarious as it is brilliantly disturbing. You get the sense that the real battle is between Django and Stephen; and the white slavers are simply their idiot puppets.
The most obvious criticism of “Django Unchained” would be in its fast and loose use of the N word. However, for me, context is everything; and considering the subject matter and the time period when the film takes place, I personally didn’t find it out of place. A bit gratuitous? Possibly, but this is a Quentin Tarantino film; and if you don’t like gratuity, you’re definitely at the wrong movie.
Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker has a style, and at heart, his style is about his characters. Always larger than life, they manage to disturb, tickle and terrify all at once. The problem is, Django is about slavery; and it was a nasty business. Its horrible racist legacy still resonates with us today. Applying this larger-than-life Quentin Tarantino style to such a serious topic runs the risk of overshadowing its harm. Sometimes the big characterizations distract the audience from Tarantino’s frighteningly realistic depictions of slavery’s violence.
Overall, the largess of Quentin Tarantino’s characters boarders on the absurd, but that same largess allows “Django Unchained” to serve as a frank unflinching condemnation of the absurdity of American slavery and racism.