Mark Reviews Movies

Django Unchained


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity)

Running Time: 2:45 

Release Date: 12/25/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 23, 2012

Django Unchained is a chronicle of a most reprehensible chapter in American history, seen through the amoral prism of the Spaghetti Western and drenched in blood and spit—but mostly blood. The film is as violent as its genre trappings and as cruel as its historical period necessitate; it is also wickedly, brutally funny in its exposure of the irrational idiocy of racism while maintaining a blunt sense of honesty about the horror of those who would impose their reckless stupidity upon others, simply because of the color of their skin. For the most part, these abysmal men are fools who can, despite their nature, cause grievous harm but who, in the film's funniest scene, cannot figure out how to wear hoods over their heads when going out for a midnight raid.

Like writer/director Quentin Tarantino's previous excursion into historical revisionism, Django Unchained creates its foundation on an archetypical revenge fantasy. Here, a slave in the American South gains his freedom and tracks down those who would keep people in slavery with the goal of exacting vengeance upon them. It is not simply an aimless sort of payback, though; in one of the many wry details of the film—not lost amidst the overwhelming sense of excess—our hero is a man of the law.

There's no shortage of irony in that premise, which pits a former victim of the evil but contemporarily legal institution of slavery against the perpetrators and enablers of that very institution, and there are no legal means for them to stop him—an agent of the law fighting the law of the land on its own terms. It's so very satisfying—a righteous sort of schadenfreude, as the hero's German, abolitionist partner might put it.

Our hero, as one could glean from the title, is Django (Jamie Foxx, stoic and thoughtful), and his story begins with a troubling juxtaposition—a triumphant theme song for Django playing over a sequence of him chained to other men for a long, grueling march through the wilderness toward another stage in their lives of involuntary servitude. Along the way, in a shadowy forest at night, a man on a horse-drawn carriage, painted and adorned in style of his dentistry trade (complete with a big tooth attached to a spring atop the cart), stops the caravan. The men leading the slaves ("Poor devils," the dentist calls them, intending the meaning that denotes sympathy) ask the stranger his business.

His name is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, effortlessly embodying a sense of tradition and progress with dignity and humor), and he is looking for Django. He's willing to pay for the men's "property," but as one might expect from the setting, there's a standoff. Schultz still pays for Django and a horse he shoots in the gunfight, leaves the surviving man trapped under his horse, and frees the remaining slaves, exiting by imparting the two choices he sees for them. One ends well for the man who held them captive; the other ends well for them. There is little doubt which option they choose.

Later, in a small town's local tavern while the owner runs off to retrieve the sheriff for Schultz breach of the law in bringing Django into his establishment, the doctor explains himself. He's a bounty hunter looking for three brothers—wanted dead or alive. Django used to be a forced resident and worker at a plantation they ran, and Schultz needs his help identifying him. If Django accepts his offer, he would become a bounty hunter as well and share in the reward money. Django agrees, with the condition that Schultz helps him find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

At some point in the middle of the exposition, Schultz pauses to shoot someone dead in street before returning to his proposal. The violence is sudden, unexpected, and defined by Schultz' indifferent reaction to what he has done. In the opening scene, Tarantino establishes some justification for the bloodshed (pre-emptive self-defense), but in this moment, the reason is known only to Schultz, who keeps mum on the subject until the entire town has surrounded the tavern, with guns aimed right at the duo. Tarantino's ability to render absurd a shocking moment of violence—and so soon after it has stunned us—is exemplified by ensuing scene of Schultz calmly and rationally explaining what has transpired to the townsfolk.

Violence is a cornerstone not only of the story but also of Tarantino's stylistic intent. The majority of it is over-the-top and without a basis in reality but with one in the bloodbaths of Westerns past (The director again appropriates existing film scores, including music from the incomparable Ennio Morricone, and Robert Richardson's cinematography captures the washed-out, sun-drenched aura of the Westerns of the same period—both on the off chance the general homage is not clear). Bright red corn syrup explodes in mock approximations of the impact of bullets to a ridiculous extreme; the bloodletting in the first of a series of climactic showdowns in the final act is so severe that, when characters return to the scene later, the room and hallways of the mansion in which it takes place are awash in red—like some terrible, grotesque paint job.

Their work leads Django and Schultz to the inner sanctum of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, foppish and intimidating), the wealthiest and most infamous plantation owner in the South—a cold-hearted businessman with a gruesome hobby of putting slaves in fights to the death. Unlike the violence that accompanies evil-doers getting their comeuppance, Tarantino refuses to exploit anything that happens on the plantation (Until, of course, the time for retribution arrives); his camera stays back as much as possible from the fight, another man being mauled by a dog, and other such atrocities, save for only what is necessary to establish them. Candie's plantation, run by the scheming head house servant Stephen (a great Samuel L. Jackson), is a nightmare of Southern hospitality.

Admittedly, the very idea of Django Unchained is troublesome (Tarantino seems to acknowledge the fact by casting himself in an uncomplimentary role), but it forces us to confront and urges us to consider the material with intentional discomfort active skepticism. It's a bold move that, in Tarantino's skilled hands, yields compelling results.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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