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Django Unchained (2012)

| December 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

What separates Quentin Tarantino from other mainstream filmmakers is that he isn’t afraid to cross the line.  Others wade in safer waters, but Tarantino ventures into the deep, shark-infested waters of good taste.  His films are bloody and sometimes profane, but they are always fearless and inventive.  Dialogue for him can be a soliloquy so original that you wonder how he thought of it in the first place.

Yet, he has never treaded more tricky waters than in his new film Django Unchained, an action western about slavery that never veers away from the ugliness of the subject.  What is trickier still is that he manages to offset material that might seem offensive by making a film that is also wildly entertaining and often hysterically funny.  The film ventures deep into some taboos that make you kind of wince.  The film contains not only buckets of blood and gore, but also to a pervasive use of the N-word, which is peppered throughout every scene.

Django Unchained, is a cornucopia of genres.  It is a spaghetti western, a buddy picture, a romance, and a revenge fantasy packed so closely together that they seem to happen on top of one another.  It reminds you of the old western ballads about a lone, broken man who acted bravely and whose name lived on in history, or at least in song.

The story takes place is 1858 and centers on a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is freed one day by the effete German immigrant Dr. King Shultz (Christop Waltz) who offers to buy him from his owners before turning them all into hamburger with his side-arms.  Shultz passes himself off as a dentist (complete with a ridiculous over-sized springy tooth atop his wagon) but he’s really a bounty hunter and he sets Django free in order to help him find his latest target.

Shultz likes Django and sees that he has the chops to be a serviceable tracker, so he teaches him the tricks of the trade and finds him to be an eager student.  He also learns that Django has a beautiful wife named Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) who was sold to a plantation to be a “comfort girl.”  They agree to partner up and try to find her and Shultz helps Django transform himself into, not only a brutal fighting machine, but also something that is completely unheard of in the 19th century American south: a black man of pride, skill, sophistication and intelligence.  Foxx’s performance is mostly made up of deep, pained looks.  He can’t reveal too much too soon, but you can see that the bondage of Broomhilde is breaking his soul.

The trail of Django’s wife makes up the film’s first half.  The second is given over to a grand set-piece at the Mississippi plantation called Candie Land, mastered by a dandy named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who pleasures himself upon the alter of slavery, not only holding his slaves in bondage or instituting a brutal activity called “Mandingo fighting”, but in head games that are cruel and unyielding. Some of this is quite uncomfortable. Tarantino’s vision of The Old South is probably closer to reality than we realize. This isn’t the land of cavaliers and cotton fields. It is an unyeilding landscape that shows slavery for the apocalypse that it is.

Candie thinks that Shultz and Django are there to buy a fighter, but something in Django’s gaze gives an aged house slave (Samuel L. Jackson) that these visitors are not what they claim to be.  That leads to a long and very tricky stand-off loaded with buckets of blood and Tarantino’s trademark dialogue.  This is where the movie really finds its legs.  As Schultz and Django find themselves in a battle of wits with Candie, we come to realize that there is more to this plantation owner then meets the eye.  At a moment when he is clued into their deception and the movie seems to be dragging, out comes a brilliant moment at the dinner table when Candie reveals his racial misanthropic vision of the separation of black and white by dissecting the skull of his father’s late barber, which he seems to have kept around just for this purpose.  DiCaprio, ever the nice guy in movies, reveals a adept skill at playing a villain.  Young, smart, good-looking, with the smile of a Cheshire cat, he seems to revel in his world of enslavement and mental bondage.  It is a great performance.

If Django Unchained has one weakness it may be that when it is over, there is a feeling that Tarantino has indulged himself a bit too much – his final showdown is as bloody as it gets.  He loves the genre of cheap exploitation pictures and he is willing to give them every accordance that he has at his disposal.  He is willing to throw everything into this film and there is a lot of material for such a simple story.  It is hard to carp when in the presence of a director so eager to please.  You may come away from this film with doubts, but never at any single moment are you bored or disinterested.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Comedy