Apr 16, 2015
Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and his second that offers a wildly fantastic revisionist view of history. After rewriting the history books about Nazi Germany with his bloody, literary, and occasionally brilliant Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained tackles slavery in the 1850s with chaotic glee. And though the film became highly controversial for its constant use of the N-word and its bloody violence (both realistic and hyper-cartoonish), it was still highly acclaimed, and became a Best Picture nominee and Tarantino’s highest grossing film yet.
The film stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave named Django, and Tarantino’s latest muse Christoph Waltz as German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Leonardo DiCaprio shows up as a convincing and often darkly humorous villain, while Tarantino favorite Samuel L. Jackson appears midway through as a boastful Uncle Tom. With some of Tarantino’s finest cinematography, impeccable pacing, and even some insightful moments, Django Unchained is a great film for longtime fans as well as newcomers to Tarantino’s distinctive cinematic world.
The film begins as Django and other slaves are led across the Texas desert by their owners. Their march is interrupted by a bounty hunter disguised as a dentist. He ends up killing one of the slave owners while leaving the other one to the slaves. His purpose is to free Django, and use him to hunt the highly profitable Brittle brothers.
The bounty hunter introduces himself as Dr. King Schultz, and he’s already aware that Django was once owned by the Brittles. What he doesn’t know is that Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) was owned by them as well. They soon form a partnership stronger than money, and together, they plan to go after the Brittles and then search for Django’s wife.
After killing the Brittles, they head towards the plantation known as “Candyland”. Candyland’s owner, Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) owns Django’s wife and is a fan of mandingo fighting (“mandingo” being a term for slaves fighting one-on-one; it was coined by a rather notorious ‘70s exploitation film).
Django and Schultz infiltrate Candie’s plantation by posing as mandingo experts wishing to acquire one of Candie’s fighters. To get back Django’s wife, they try to add her to the transaction without setting off alarm bells. However, an Uncle Tom in the house named Stephen (Jackson) believes that something is wrong, and quickly alerts Candie of his suspicions.
This leads to a huge, bloody shootout in Candyland. Schultz ends up killing Candie, and a henchman kills Schultz. What follows is massive carnage as Django goes on a rampage, killing several of Candie’s workers before he’s finally captured.
After the shootout, Django is sold off to ruthless Australians (one of whom is played by Tarantino, sporting a horrible Aussie accent). Django quickly escapes from them and heads back towards Candyland to free his wife. He saves her, and then disposes of Stephen, as well as Candie’s sister/lover, and then blows up Candyland itself. At the end, Django mounts his horse and rides off happily with his wife.
This film is cinematically beautiful. The landscapes, the close-ups, the interior design, and nearly everything else is visually outstanding. The film makes great use of anamorphic widescreen shots, and the 35mm print is truly colorful and outlandish. It can’t be stated enough: this film looks phenomenal.
But it doesn’t just look great: the movie works like a finely-tuned Swiss watch as well. Django Unchained doesn’t necessarily break any new ground for Tarantino, but it certainly plays to his strengths. The pacing of the film never lets up, and the humor and horror play off of each other equally well.
Take for instance the scene where Django and Schultz arrive at the first plantation. Django’s blue outfit (apparently inspired by Thomas Gainsborough) is the butt of numerous jokes, and all of them get laughs. It’s a scene funnier than what you’ll find in most recent comedies. Immediately after this, Tarantino switches gears and has Django witness his former owner whipping a slave. This causes him to have a horrific flashback of running away with his wife, and then he takes to shooting and whipping the owners. This scene is horrific, and it comes merely seconds after a great comedic showpiece. While Tarantino makes it look easy, this is incredibly difficult to pull off.
And right after this scene, a group of Klansmen argue over the size of the eyeholes in their white hoods. It’s absolutely hilarious, out of place, and yet no one in the audience is taken out of the film.
Another notable feature of the film is its soundtrack. We’ve come to expect a Tarantino film to contain a great soundtrack, and Django Unchained does not disappoint. It features original songs from Ennio Morricone, as well as a host of other beautiful songs and instrumentals. One of the standouts is “100 Black Coffins” by rapper Rick Ross. It’s not so much that the song is great—taken on its own, it’s probably the weakest song in the film—but it’s used in such an exhilarating way that it helps to push the film into greatness. Like the Bowie song in Inglourious Basterds, a modern song introduced into historical depravity can make us both excited and uneasy, and force us to reconsider just how far we’ve really come.
While this is not what one would call a deeply philosophical film, Tarantino does introduce themes of power, oppression, and the subtle ways in which they can abruptly change. These themes aren’t explored to their fullest in Django Unchained, but they are the sign of a maturing filmmaker still continuing to push himself and his work.
When Tarantino is past his prime, will people look back on Django Unchained as his masterwork? Most likely not, as Pulp Fiction is so culturally ingrained, and Inglourious Basterds is much more daring. However, Django is that rare film that just works on every level.
The only fault I can find is that the film is quite hollow in the end. In a lot of ways, it seems like nothing more than an exercise in recreating the B-grade exploitation cinema that Tarantino clearly loves. (This is obvious from the name of the movie’s hero, a tribute to the spaghetti western character originally played by Franco Nero, who gets a small cameo here.) It’s an extremely entertaining exercise, but an exercise nonetheless.
Pulp Fiction did something new, and it lives on today because of its unique vision. Inglourious Basterds mixed revisionist history with almost literary theories of cinema (and Bowie songs!) and it was a totally unexpected surprise. Django Unchained fails to bring something new to the table, and for that, it probably won’t be canonized as a classic in cinema history.
Sure, I could find more things to complain about in this film. The CGI whip at the plantation is ridiculous, the Tupac/James Brown mashup during the shootout is weak, and Tarantino’s Australian accent is, to put it kindly, the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life. But these are the kind of rough spots you expect from a nearly three-hour film.
While Django Unchained might be overshadowed by other Tarantino films, I would say it’s one of the best films of the past ten years. While it may not do anything profound or revolutionary, it’s one of Tarantino’s tightest films and could be used as a study guide on pacing for years to come.