MOVIE REVIEW: Django Unchained



While he's far from the prim and proper aficionado of cinema that Martin Scorsese is, you can't fault Quentin Tarantino for loving and paying homage to the movies that he adored, appreciated, and was influenced by as a Los Angeles kid and future filmmaker.  A fan of film over digital, he's the best throwback director in Hollywood to a forgotten time of movies.  While Scorsese takes the high road and makes sentimental movie homages like Hugo, Tarantino takes the proverbial low road with Jackie Brown, Death Proof, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds.   Whether he dabbles in cool criminals, violent grindhouse action, blaxploitation, kung-fu, or World War II, Tarantino brings a flair unmatched by his peers.  His latest, Django Unchained, is something he calls a "southern," combining elements from Italian spaghetti westerns and socially-charged race films of the 1960s.  Does it work?  It most certainly does, with a little bit of "no" at the end.

First and foremost, let's start by debunking some myths and dethroning a few soapboxes.  Do not fall for or buy into the trumped up charges and hyped up backlash of negativity being circulated by some members of the press surrounding this movie.  Over half of the talking heads ranting about it haven't even seen the movie, so stop listening to what they say.  Hold out for someone who has seen it or go judge for yourself.

Is the n-word used like water?  Yes.  Was it used like water in the 1850's by both blacks AND whites?  Yes, meaning it's not out of line to see and hear it used a bazillion times.  Get over it.  Does Jamie Foxx get to kill white people?  Yes, many of them.  Did he brag about it as a host of Saturday Night Live during a comedy monologue on a comedy show?  Yes.  Is it a lash-out sign of deep-seeded anti-white bigotry?  Hell no.  It's a funny guy embellishing fictional movie violence to sell tickets and crack jokes.  Is the movie incredibly violent, even over the top?  Yes, but every Quentin Tarantino is, so stop pretending to be surprised.  As a friend of mine said, he's successful because he toes the line and pushes the envelope.  

Django Unchained earned its proper R-rating, fair and square.  It's your job as adults to keep kids from seeing the film because it is not appropriate for anyone under 17.  Do your job supervising, Mom and Dad, and it won't be a problem.  Furthermore, the film offers little to no worthwhile insight towards this time in American history.  A movie of this level of caricature should not go down as an "important" movie for slavery or racism.  Teachers, leave this one out of school and stick to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Roots, and Glory. 

This one is purely entertainment.  Finally, did anyone actually die making this movie?  No, because, again, movies are entertainment.  They are fiction.  If it's not your kind of entertainment or fiction, go watch something else.  Go watch Les Miserables and watch white people be mean to other white people.  Once again, get over it.

What Django Unchained really represents is stylish and successful Americanized homage to the lone wolf macho Italian westerns of yesteryear that just happens to take place in the slavery of the Old South.  Like inside-out Russian nesting dolls, with each new movie since Quentin Tarantino's now-legendary debut of the virtually single-set Reservoir Dogs all the way up to tackling the landscape of World War II Europe in Inglorious Basterds, he has expanded his canvas to a bigger scale every time.   By tackling a massive western, the writer and director continues to prove that he has never been short on ambition and gives us his grandest spectacle yet.

For the most part, the story of Django Unchained is a simple revenge tale.  Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx plays the titular hero, a runaway slave who's been captured, sold, and separated from his beautiful wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), with the sole goal of reuniting with her.  As a man who's been a lot of places and seen a lot of things, Django is one of few men who can visually identify the latest bounty targets of one, Dr. King Schultz (Inglourious Basterds Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a benevolent German-born immigrant who masquerades as a dentist and a man of clearly higher vocabulary than everyone else.  After initially trying to barter for his purchase, Schultz breaks Django free and offers him a chance to help him.  After a successful first score, King takes Django on as a bounty hunting partner for the coming winter and soon agrees to help Django in his quest to reunite with his lost wife.

Their quest to find Broomhilda leads them to her purchaser, Monsieur Calvin J. Candie (three-time Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio), a lecherously decadent and notoriously cruel Mississippi plantation owner.  He employs many slaves in many capacities, including his longtime trusted assistant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), and even more deadly gunmen, like Butch Pooch (James Remar) and Billy Crash (Walton Goggins).  In order to get close to Candie, King and Django pose as high rollers (including a cameo by Django inspiration Franco Nero) interested in getting into "Mandingo fighting," where male slaves are trained to brawl hand-to-hand to the death, a particular fetish interest of Candie's.  They negotiate a meeting and soon get invited to "Candyland" to close the deal, setting up a climactic scheme and showdown.

As expected, Django Unchained unloads an arsenal of coolness.  Schultz's silver tongue and Foxx's steely focus make for a solid dynamic duo on horseback.  Christoph Waltz is as conversationally amusing to listen to as he was in Inglourious Basterds and Jamie Foxx hasn't been this badass in a long time, likely since 2005's Jarhead.  The first half of the film outlining their meeting and partnership is as good as any western in the last 30 years.  True to his eclectic tastes, Tarantino creatively showcases them in heroic vintage musical cues ranging from Luis Bacalov, Ennio Morricone, Riziero Ortolani, and a little Jim Croce, John Legend, and Rick Ross thrown in for good measure and variety.  There are no blurred lines here.  You can spot the "white hats" from the "black hats" a mile away and just from the music if you wanted.

As the saying goes, a hero is only as good as his villain and there are many great showmen at work in Django Unchained.  Much like the tournament feel of Kill Bill, the examples and embodiments of evil get greater as Django moves up the ladder.  Long-lost TV star Don Johnson sets the tone early and it builds all the way to Leonardo DiCaprio's loathsome socialite and Samuel L. Jackson's crooked sidekick.  This is quite a departure for the normally polished and smooth DiCaprio and he's a hoot to watch and hate.  I can easily see why he's getting talk for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but he's in a vote-splitting situation with the equally splendid Waltz (and maybe even Jackson too).  Maybe with Waltz winning this same award so recently it becomes time for the very overdue DiCaprio to get his.

Stepping to the moviemaking side of Django Unchained, as aforementioned, this is Tarantino's broadest landscape yet and he nails the look and tone he was striving to achieve.  This movie is a seamless western in palette and design.  Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, a frequent Tarantino collaborator (and also of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone), soaks up every dusty speck, muddy smudge, and sunlit meadow of the California, Wyoming, and Louisiana locations.  He and Tarantino shoot the insanely wild violence with operatic slow motion at some times and visceral in-your-face speed on other occasions.  The moments where each are used are perfectly chosen and coordinated.  Those moviegoers looking to Django Unchained for gory highlights will not be disappointed.  Again, coolness dominates in a highly entertaining way.

To conclude, Django Unchained is not without one or two major flaws, and they cost it a star from being a perfect five.  First up, without a doubt, the movie is colossally too long.  This shouldn't surprise Tarantino vets who are used to his usual rambling conversation scenes that are fun for actors, but offer very little in plot development.  Yes, you get more movie for your dollar, but at a whopping 165 minutes, it's longer than Lincoln (150), Les Miserables (160), Zero Dark Thirty (157)and even The Master (143).  It's only four minutes shorter thanThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  

In the grand scheme of things, the simple story of Django Unchained should not take that long.  The first half is outstandingly paced with great character introduction and build-up, but things slow down considerably in the second half.  Secondly, while the movie ends plenty of band, the ending act itself is haphazardly broken into two really poorly-jointed parts that serve no purpose other than to give Tarantino his own extended cameo, killing the "killing" momentum it had going.  The director has always had this problem with his movies and it is his own overindulgent fault.  The guy flat-out needs to hire an editor that can reign him in and whittle down the wasted time.  That said, plenty of us will gladly take this kind of fun for the price of a little overindulgence.

LESSON #1: THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN SLAVERY AND BOUNTY HUNTING-- The good doctor King Schultz simplifies to Django that, much like the slave trade, he sells flesh for money.  This surprisingly simple analogy works for comparing, yet still clearly separating, the good guys from the bad guys in Django Unchained, while still showing the evil and wrong that it takes to do either profession.  Like any other business, folks are in it for the money.

LESSON #2: THE ABILITY TO DEVELOP AND WIELD A SILVER TONGUE-- While this talent starts with King Schultz, it soon becomes a part of Django's repertoire before long.  Being a good talker, an even better BSer, and a smooth operator can save your butt as often as it can get it in trouble when used ineffectively.  For full deception, words have to back up looks.  As Calvin Candie even concedes "Gentlemen, you had my curiosity.  But now, you have my attention."  You've got to love the power of words and Tarantino is a master at wielding them and instilling them into his characters.

LESSON #3: BACK UP YOUR WORDS WITH ACTION-- While words and a silver tongue are extremely handy and necessary, talk will only get you so far.  You have to back that up with action.  Talk the talk and walk the walk.  In Django Unchained, that means pulling the trigger and dealing your decisiveness and follow through with hot lead.

LESSON #4: THE DETERMINATION TO REUNITE WITH A SEPARATED LOVED ONE-- Outside of all of the macho talk and violent action, this movie still comes down to a simple man just looking to return to his wife.  That's his sole driving motivation, not the money, the clothes, or the chance to exact a little revenge and justice.  It's just that simple and Django shows the lengths he's willing to go and toes he's willing to step on to get his beloved Broomhilda back.