Django Unchained (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Django Unchained (2012)

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1Andrew LIKE BannerSometimes it feels like if we were to export the whole of our artistic endeavors to a foreign land with no explanation that it would appear the South won the Civil War.  The story of the Confederate defeat has been mythologized so many times that it appears hundreds of thousands of noble warriors fought for their land and then disappeared into legend.  Never mind that they were attempting to preserve slavery, the one completely unforgivable trade that our country has done it's damnedest to keep piled under the rug.  So many stories were lost in those hundreds of years we engaged in the practice yet, even in Lincoln, still manage to find some time to salute the South instead of remarking on those stories.

Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained, is - for all its bluster and quick dollying shots - aware of this unforgivable oversight in our history and attempts to give a rip-roaring voice to those that will never get to speak.  As fun as many parts of the film are, each shot is rooted in a deep cynicism about the recorded story of our nation and just how much we've decided to continue focusing on black compatriots for entertainment or labor instead of letting them tell their own stories.  However, this is still a Tarantino film, and just because the subject matter is somber doesn't mean that there is a dearth of fun to be had.

Let's start with that magnificent title.  Much like World War Two with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino is directly invoking both the spirit of the Westerns of old and the glorious blaxploitation films of the '70s.  Tarantino is engaging with film history but also giving a fictional voice to those that didn't have the ability to tell their story.  This, I admit, is a bit hypocritical given that Tarantino is a prominent white director who has had great success.  But Tarantino approached this topic with surprising maturity and in one deft late-film scene lampoons himself for thinking that he could tell a fictionalized story better than what the truth must be.

Unlike Tarantino's previous films, the violence is presented as a dark reality and always leaves a reminder.

Unlike Tarantino's previous films, the violence is presented as a much darker reality and always leaves a reminder.

Regardless, he tells one hell of a tale here.  The film opens on a gaggle of slaves being led through the harsh wilderness before their handlers come across a delightful charmer in a cart with a giant tooth attached to the top by a spring.  The proprietor, the impeccably mannered Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is looking for a man to assist him in his real trade - bounty hunting.  Django (Jamie Foxx) is brave enough to speak out in the darkness and is purchased by Dr. Schultz, but not before the owners get their due and the former slaves remove their shackles and gain their strength in a stunning slow-motion sequence from Tarantino.

His goal with these two characters is clear and, unlike the mishandled and frequently shrill Inglorious Basterds, very noble.  Tarantino keeps the two of them as a guide through the horrors of slavery and will not sugarcoat what happened to so many.  We primarily see the world through the doctor's eyes until Django begins to tell his tale and, in a frightening scene filmed with grainy high-contrast film that owes a debt to the opening scenes of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, how he and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) were branded.  From that point on all the violence is all from Django's point of view with little stylizing because this is his day to day reality.

This makes some scenes of Django Unchained difficult to watch specifically because Tarantino does not pull his usual schtick.  There is no winking to the camera when a slave is pulled apart by dogs.  Even when Django and the doctor begin their quest to get Broomhilda back from the charming Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) there is little mythologizing their quest.  When we first meet Candie the joy he takes in forcing his slaves to fight seems horrifyingly unreal as Tarantino let's every blow between two forced-fighters take center stage on the soundtrack as he hoots and hollers.  Many scenes in this film are very hard to watch and they should be considering how hard we try to forget this history.

One very dark and effective running joke is showing just how many people hace Django in their sights, and how society is just waiting for him to fall into the right trap.

One very dark and effective running joke is showing just how many people hace Django in their sights, and how society is just waiting for him to fall into the right trap.

The performances also do a complete 180 from his previous film.  Jamie Foxx, whose talents vary in quality, is steely perfection as the instantly iconic Django.  DiCaprio, on the other hand, is a terrifying sadist whose delight in violence allows him to block out some pretty severe pain in several moments.  Washington, unfortunately, falls prey to the fact that Tarantino has essentially structured this film as a boys club and doesn't get much to do.  However, Tarantino seems to have found the perfect person to speak his dialogue with Christoph Waltz.  He was the best part of Inglorious Basterds and here has the most complex role as a supposedly educated man who is ignorant about what happens to slaves in America.  What could have been an embarrassing role becomes revelatory in his increasingly nervous and disgusted reactions to Candie's behavior and when the fire finally starts it's not hard to understand why.

Most importantly, all of the characters react to Django, as opposed to treating him like another background detail.  This is especially seen in his effect on the complex relationship that Candie carries with his farm's head slave, the barely concealed Uncle Tom type Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  Their arrangement is one where the caretaker has influenced his master and really holds all the power but needs slavery to maintain the status quo.  With Django introduced, a new future is possible, but one where Stephen no longer holds the cards.  Django is a disruptive element, a free man accurately portrayed as an anomaly wherever he goes, and molds the events of the film instead of reacting to them as Stephen's terror that things might change brings the final act into focus.  Tarantino should be applauded for having a level of tact that both grants Django this status, but is somber enough to recognize the reality that even some of the oppressed worked up the system to turn it around on their own.

Samuel L. Jackson may be Tarantino's longest-running collaborator, but with Christoph Waltz he's found the perfect mouthpiece for his stories.

Samuel L. Jackson may be Tarantino's longest-running collaborator, but with Christoph Waltz he's found the perfect mouthpiece for his stories.

Django Unchained harkens back to the Tarantino I saw with Jackie Brown.  This film shows a director who is willing to still have fun with some very serious material while paying full homage to the movies he loves.  He still has time to twist some of those scenes though, most notably when he takes the most iconic shot from John Ford's The Searchers and then gives us the catharsis that John Wayne was denied in that film.  Even the zanier elements, like Django and the doctor's unnaturally trained horses, make sense in light of the lapse of time and image-conscious nature of the two of them.  It's magnificently put together, but the near 3-hour run-time is an issue.  Since Death Proof Tarantino has let his love of a scene get the better of him and in this movie there are about four too many montages set to a song that plays to completion before moving onto the next scene.  He still hasn't learned the meaning of brevity and, while I don't expect him to, the film suffers for it.

This is a promising sign from a filmmaker I thought had become too adolescent to make a cohesive point anymore.  But he calmed down, wizened up, and made a very difficult film about a similarly challenging chapter of our past that continues to echo today.  It's a fiction well deserved for those that never had an ability to give it voice, and easily one of the best films of 2012.

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TailDjango Unchained (2012)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. For the group of movies that came out this holiday week, this was one of the better ones.

    • Thank you for the comment! I read your review and you were right to pick the spray of blood onto the cotton as one of the strongest visuals. I can’t think of a better way to sum up slavery in America than that.

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