“Django Unchained”, guided by the voice of filmmaking virtuoso Quentin Tarantino, is utterly incendiary filmmaking: holding a mirror up to the abhorrent sins of our country, while serving as ever-satisfying, ridiculously bloody genre fare. Tarantino pulled off this trick fairly recently — twice in fact, with 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” targeting both Nazi sympathies and the uber-macho Allied culture that took it down, and 2007’s “Death Proof” subtly inverting the tropes of horror filmmaking to, ultimately, empower women.
What’s “Django”‘s target? Well, slavery — and not the sort of whitewashed, filtered depiction of it that you’d see in, say, a “Gone With The Wind”. This is brutal, bloody, and profane as hell, and while some parties may choose to view this as exploitative (Hey there Spike Lee! How ya doin’, pal?), it simply serves to elevate the villainy Tarantino’s characters must overcome. Speaking of which…
The film opens in 1858, as a group of slaves walk shackled across the country. Here we meet Jamie Foxx’s Django, who in a burst of unexpected gunfire, is freed from capacity by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Django and Schultz come to an agreement: if Django works with Schultz, killing wanted convicts all through the winter, then Schultz will assist Django in freeing his long-lost wife from a notorious slave plantation, crudely dubbed “Candie-Land” for the surname of its charismatic young owner, Calvin Candie.
I’ve recently developed a theory that I’ve only begun to test, yet it’s this: a truly great film can be played with either no audio or no video, and remain just as riveting. With regards to “Django”, it goes without saying that the soundtrack to this would be a wonderful listen. Tarantino’s dialogue is the same sort of profane poetry that moviegoers have been eating up for 20 years. Yet his recent work has forced me to realize what a developed, mature stylist he’s become, and “Django” is yet another visual triumph for the man. He meets a perfect intersection of paying tribute to his pulpy influences (the ’60’s work of spaghetti-western directors Leone & Corbucci serves as a spiritual predecessor here), yet all the while, composes utterly gorgeous, standalone cinematography. His frequent collaborator, Robert Richardson, just fresh off his Cinematography Oscar for last year’s “Hugo”, turns in work here whose strength cannot be overstated.
Recently rocked with the death of long-time editor Sally Menke, Tarantino’s turned to the talents of Fred Raskin to slice up his work here. The shocking thing? At 2 hours 45 minutes, the film still flies by. This film is in firm command of the audience’s emotions and attention, and so it never feels like it’s asking too much to devote, say, an hour to setting up Django & King’s friendship; nor is it awkward when the film’s second act slows down squarely, taking place only on one fateful night at “Candie-Land”.
This surely stems from the masterful writing and craft on display in the film, but also, there’s far more primal, base reasons: the action here, man. Tarantino knows how to wow with his staging and sequencing, and towards the climax of the film, there is one particular shoot-out which I now firmly believe to be one of the most inventive and satisfying in all of cinema. “Django”, naturally, has come under criticism for the savagery its characters endure. Yet, as always, Tarantino refrains from simplistic exploitation, knowing when to use violence as a tool to either satisfy the audience or deeply, deeply shock it. And believe me, shock “Django” does.
Perhaps its biggest jar comes on a cultural level, not a visceral one: seeing America’s golden-boy-movie-star Leonardo DiCaprio in a vile role of villainy and depravity. His character, the aforementioned Calvin Candie, is a hot-tempered, narcissist brat whose soul has surely eroded alongside his teeth. He’s also one of the juiciest, most verbose roles in the film, with impassioned speeches on “Negroes’ skulls” and subtly incestuous undertones shocking us at every turn. Second in command to DiCaprio is Samuel L. Jackson, who may well walk away with the damn movie as Stephen, Candie’s lead house-slave. To spoil the motives and mechanisms of Stephen is to spoil a great deal (and great joy) of “Django”.
Littered in various roles across the film — Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, even Jonah Hill in a hysterical cameo as a bumbling Ku Klux Klan member. Kerry Washington’s supporting role as Django’s wife is deeply human if fairly limited, and Django himself — Jamie Foxx — pulls off a mixture of stoic confidence and seething anger that much mirrors the film itself, giving us a movie hero for the ages. Finally, Christoph Waltz slaughters his role as Dr. King, offering the same hyper-articulate shtick from his Nazi commandant in “Inglourious Basterds”, with one major difference — this time, he plays a deeply lovable man, albeit also a mass-murderer, in his own way.
At the tail-end of 2012, a movie-going year littered with disappointments for this reviewer, it was the highest of joys to receive literally everything I’ve been missing, with “Django Unchained”. This is a film where meticulous craft meets impassioned social commentary, creating a work that, while outrageously violent, remains deeply humanistic in its values. Does it say anything new about slavery, race relations, and the role of the black man, whether in antebellum South or contemporary society? In short: no. But one glimpse at the last month’s news headlines assures me that it’s inspiring these sorts of conversations in a way that no work of art seems to have done in years. Certainly no work of Hollywood, and certainly no work of Spike Lee. “Django Unchained” is, very simply, the kind of film that makes me overjoyed to be alive. A