#1. Samuel L. Jackson gives what might be his finest acting performance. Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio just won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review for playing Calvin Candie, the film’s major heavy, and while that is a terrific choice, the standout Supporting Actor performance from Django belongs to Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen.
Playing Calvin’s house slave henchman and de facto father figure, Jackson is equal part plotting, murderous and grotesque Uncle Remus caricature, part destroyed and hollowed old husk of a man. Stephen is a man who has had to learn how to survive an ugly world at any cost. Jackson plays him far beyond stereotype, riffing on racist character types throughout film history and then elevating the characterization with a bracing hint of menace, he provides an unexpected, dangerous twist at every turn and never goes in the direction you think he will.
With a nimbus of white hair and thick white eyebrows bearing down on his haunted eyes, old age makeup and a very distinct manner of speaking, Jackson turns in possibly his most completely immersive character performance that incorporates the best of what we have come to expect from Samuel L Jackson – the wise-cracking, foulmouthed and foul-tempered criminal that we saw him so expertly play in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—but on a completely exciting and higher-stakes level. As he showed recently with his incredibly sensitive work in Mother and Child, Jackson has really been pushing himself as of late as an actor and that drive to show something new hiding within what we thought was familiar is clear with his portrayal of Stephen.
He is working in variations, “Samuel L. Jackson” is one theme, the iconography of black cinema is another. This kind of commanding work should be recognized.
#2. Like Jackson, Quentin Tarantino keeps getting better. More focused, more refined in filmmaking technique, Django represents a continuation of Tarantino’s mature, formal style that could be easily compared with the obvious D.W. Griffiths and Clint Eastwoods of the world; yet it could be argued that the King Vidors, John Hustons and the Luchino Viscontis are just as evident in Tarantino’s visual storytelling. Django Unchained represents contemporary classic filmmaking, with intelligence brimming over not only in Tarantino’s understanding of the language of cinema, but also in his understanding and juxtaposition of what race, class and gender meant in the slavery-era Antebellum South and what they mean now. He looks at how these politics may or may not have evolved. He quite provocatively asks his audience to come to their own conclusions.
Everyone’s answer will be different, and no one will be let off the hook. This is the mark of a master filmmaker, to create such wide-ranging dialogs.
#3. The design of the film is stunning. From the camerawork, to the detailed and meticulous period costumes, to the especially-inventive art direction – each of these key elements of Django Unchained’s design are impeccable and imaginative.
#4. Kerry Washington’s enigmatic Broomhilda Washington gets to do something very interesting in Django that Tarantino has experimented with in other films: she is a truly multilingual character. For the first act of the film, Washington basically plays Broomhilda without words. We must believe the love that she and her husband share that ties that story together, and the abhorrent conditions that are keeping her apart from Django must be shown. Tarantino very cleverly has Washington convey everything in silence, in flashback, in fleeting glimpses. Broomhilda becomes a classic, literal traumfrauen, existing only in the ether of Django’s memories. We learn that she also speaks German, a novelty that provides Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz) with a way to get to her when he arrives at Candyland with Django.
There’s a bit between Washington and Waltz that’s reminiscent of Waltz’s great scene as Hans Landa in the beginning of Inglorious Basterds where characters use a foreign language to keep a secret from anyone who might be listening in on the conversation. Lastly, Washington creates a unique sound and dialect for Broomhilda’s true speaking voice, laying down excellent vocal work with the assistance of Tarantino’s words. Her performance in the film is not to be underestimated and despite it’s relative quiet is actually quite furious upon closer inspection. Broomhilda goes through a dynamic range of experiences through the film’s course, many disturbing, but Washington wisely underplays and comes out of the film giving a memorable performance full of life and warmth.
#5. Don Johnson as Big Daddy No explanation needed there!
The Weinstein Company will release Django Unchained on December 25.