Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson
(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 25 Dec 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Jan 2013 (General release); 2012)
As he makes his way through the memory bank of recollected movie genres, Quentin Tarantino argues for his place as cinema’s greatest thief. Not that this is a bad thing. Indeed, his legitimate larceny has amped at least two generations of fanboys and girls to revisit past masters in a way no other filmmaker has found. He inspires inquiry, asking for the clueless and clued in to play along with his game of spot the homage. With canvases so broad - crime, WWII, The Shaw Brothers - he’s managed to make his name off the obvious references of those who came before. And yet, like any great chef, he doesn’t merely mimic. He pours over previous recipes, extracting the best bits to turn into his own masterful (and tasty) creations. They may seem similar, but they remain wholly his own.
It’s the same with his latest love letter to his formative years stocking video shelves, Django Unchained. Borrowing the name from a classic spaghetti western mythos and inserting his lust for Leone into a combination of blaxploitation and slavery sleaze, he’s crafted what is destined to become a Scarface for the 21st century, an over the top, violence filled spectacle where race is baited and blood is spilled - both in more than sufficient amounts. Everything you’ve heard about this film is correct - it’s shameless in its use of the N-word, wanton in the fountains of gore it throws off of its bodies. But if you dig deeper, beneath the contentious social stigmas, we once again see a man in complete control of his muse. Let’s put it this way - no other filmmaker could fumble through the entire history of post-modern movies and come up with something this shocking…and this sensational.
Our story centers around the title character, a recently freed slave renamed Django (Jamie Foxx). “Bought” by a traveling dentist/bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in hopes of discovering the identities of his latest target, The Brittle Brothers, this sullen sidekick wants only one thing - to retrieve his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the grasp of greedy plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio). Schultz agrees to help him find the girl if Django agrees to become his partner. Together, they set off across the pre-Civil War south finding criminals and killing them for money. Eventually, they stumble upon Candie as part of a Mandigo Death Match ring (where rich white owners put their “property” on display and then have them fight to the death). Hoping to reach a sound financial accord, the duo discover Broomhilda’s whereabouts. When Candie won’t comply willingly, it’s time for guns to blaze.
As revisionist about the Old West and the even Older South as his take on Hitler and his higher ups, Django Unchained represents the unleashed Id of its incredibly talented writer/director. It’s a history lesson steeped in histrionics and hyperbole, a giddy adolescent’s interpretation of how foreign filmmakers saw our country circa the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s also an urban sonnet, the formation of a found minority hero whose apparent talent is to take on the Man - and win! By using the plantation backdrop and the obvious exploitation of said slave populace, Tarantino drives his point home. The N-word, while completely period appropriate (remember, it traces its origins as far back as 1619) is purposefully incendiary. Tarantino applies it to get his audience up in arms. Then, when they are ready for revenge, his lead breaks out the pistol and starts putting these bigots to bed, dirt nap style.
As for the splatter, well that’s part of the spaghetti formula. When the Italians and Spanish started reworking the Western, they discarded all the prim and properness and infused the dying genre with anger and aggression. They dirtied it up, turning stubble into a selling point and bullet wounds into the stuff of legend. Even the great Sam Pekinpah could see the slippery writing on the wall, giving his Wild Bunch the kind of ample arterial spray that made the Sergios - Leone and Carbucci - international icons. Still, there is no denying the abusive, sadistic state of the region in that time, and Tarantino faces a mandatory ‘no win’ from those on either side of the fence. For now, he is feeling the sting of those who believe he went too far. Had he shied away from said horrors, there would be those who argued his passive, pro-Confederacy stance.
All of this fails to take the film itself into consideration, which is a shame. As an example of (specific) audience pleasing motion picture making, Django Unchained is a joy. It’s fun and foolish, unhinged and unapologetic. While Foxx is a fixture when it comes to a character, the rest of the cast go out of their way to chew as much of the baroque scenery as possible. This is especially true of Waltz and Dicaprio. Both men bring their solid acting chops to their meaty, maniacal roles, leaving audiences breathless with the depth of their desire to sell Tarantino’s dialogue. This is still a very talky film, rivers of human claret aside, and both men make the most of it. This is especially true of Waltz, who could read the phonebook with his clipped, German-inflected English and keep us entertained. And what a delight it is to see Dennis Christopher back on the big screen. Sure, he’s been a TV staple since Breaking Away, but here he adds a kind of connective charm that only Tarantino can create.
The result is an experience rife with difficulties but definite in its ability to engage. You can’t walk out of Django Unchained and not feel something…anger, outrage, amusement, satisfaction. He’s that kind of auteur. ‘In your face’ doesn’t begin to describe his approach, and yet there are moments of subtle beauty and critical defiance here. Most of this movie is what you’d expect from the aging agent provocateur, a blindsided blow to the decency we seem to demand of our (second) favorite medium. On the other hand, Django Unchained charts some new territory. While it wallows in the wanton, it also contextualizes its cruelty, and that’s a sign of maturity that any director of his ilk would hope for.