Just in time to add gore and thunder to the end-of-year march of bloodless, whimpering, would-be Oscar contenders, Django Unchained, writer-director Quentin Tarantino's latest film, is in many ways also his best film, combining his maniacal style of mashed-up fragments from the cultural canon with a seriousness of intent that turns Django into a discussion of both pop and politics.
Much as Inglourious Basterds was inspired by a forgotten (and properly spelled) 1978 war picture, Django Unchained takes Franco Nero's 1966 spaghetti western Django and unspools it into a brave piece of filmmaking and a commentary on culture, on both the false "history" we learn from movies and how that history gets respun into rousing movies. It's powerhouse stuff, and the length of the film and the impressively staged killing and bloodspilling may be too much for some. But it's hard to deny that all of the violence and language has a point. I began Django Unchained uncomfortably wondering why Tarantino's characters kept saying "nigger." By the end of the film, I was more inspired to think about all the times I hadn't heard that word in the classic westerns I grew up with ...
Jamie Foxx is Django, who we meet as part of a chain of slaves shuffling through a cold night. Django is found and freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a dentist-turned-bounty hunter. If one thing hurts the film, it's that Tarantino again has Waltz play a loquacious killer, as articulate as he is amoral. It's a delightful performance, but too close on the heels of his turn in Basterds. Schultz knows that Django can identify the three men he wants to find and slay, but has never seen. A deal is struck: Django will help Schultz, Schultz will then help train Django to free his wife, Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) a runaway who was forcibly separated from her husband and sent to the Mississippi plantation, Candyland.
"Kill white men and get paid for it? What's not to like?" And so, Django takes to the work like he was born into it, which in a way, he was. Set two years before the Civil War, Django plays like someone Monday morning-quarterbacking American History. It's ridiculous, but it's no lark. Rather, the operatic lunacy of the film feels like the only way to talk about the real lunacy of slavery in America. Novelist James Ellroy, no stranger to exploring fact through fiction, wrote in the introduction to American Tabloid that only a "reckless verisimilitude" can correct an American story "blurred past truth and hindsight." Not a reckless truth, but a reckless verisimilitude—the illusion of truth, the attempt of the false to be truthful. Tarantino's version/vision of the West (which is really the South) is so glamorously phony that it forces you to contemplate the ugly truth.
Django Unchained is also funny—and smarter than it looks at first glance. A scene of a night raid plays as the funniest, most violent riff on the Klan since Mel Brooks gave Cleavon Little a sheriff's star. There's a lot in Django Unchained about slavery and social order as performed constructs—accepted roles—and about how such a surreal lie as slavery defined our history. Leonardo Di Caprio's plantation owner Calvin Candie, a preening sociopath and slaver, likes to be called "Monsieur Candie," considers himself a Francophile ... and can't speak French. A gag puncturing pretentiousness, or a pointed comment on America, who was born from the French Enlightenment but would later reject it?
Like a blood-soaked Blazing Saddles, Django Unchained is a critique based in love, a celebration that understands what's worth condemnation. Django Unchained isn't just a product of how the young Tarantino watched a thousand Westerns and came to understand what was in them—it's also a product of how the young Tarantino watched a thousand Westerns and came to question what wasn't in them. The morality (or lack of thereof) of slavery and murder runs through the film, and Tarantino's observations cut deep.
The performances are astonishing. Foxx is heroic and haunted, Waltz a cavalier money-maker who becomes a moral man. Di Caprio is a bully and a dandy, Kerry Washington's Brunhilde is excellent as both vision of female perfection and real woman herself. And Samuel J. Jackson's Steven, the head house servant at Candyland, is both a coward and a collaborator, fearsome and pathetic, abusing as much power as Candie gives him against his fellow men. Technically, the film is a masterwork, with burly, shifty zooms nosing into the action like a bouncer wading into a bar fight. But there's subtlety, as well. An elegantly choreographed sequence where Candyland's slaves set the table with precise movements does more with juxtaposition and context to discuss class and power as an elaborate bit of stagecraft in two minutes than the stagy Anna Karenina does in hours.
Django Unchained is a sharp shock of a film in an Awards season very full of movies so noble they become immobile. It's wildly unlikely to get much love from the Academy, and that's fine-bluntly, it's too good for them. With its bloody stew of history and hysteria, action taken from movies and atrocities taken from fact, Django isn't just a movie only America could make—it's also a movie only America needs to.
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Simone, Stacey Sher
Rating: R for violence, adult themes, language
Running time: 165 min.
Release date: December 25, 2012
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