One of the most satisfying revenge movies ever made, Django Unchained is a masterwork that is at turns hilarious, horrifying, exciting, engaging and disturbing.
A love letter to Italian spaghetti westerns, Django Unchained follows a pre-civil war bounty hunter posing as a dentist, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is on the trail of a trio of brothers for a bounty. He purchases a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx)who knows what the brothers look like and makes a deal with him that if Django helps him hunt down the brothers, Schultz will set him free. When Schultz learns that Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has been taken and sold to another plantation, he agrees to train Django as a bounty hunter and help him rescue her. When they learn that the infamous Mandingo trader Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) has her, the stakes get higher but nothing is going to stand in Django’s way.
To get this out of the way, I love Quentin Tarantino as both a writer and a director. It has become somewhat trendy to make claims that he is overrated or that he is derivative but I disagree wholeheartedly and I feel that time is going to tell on the massive legacy to film that he will leave behind. It is true that he works in genre and wears his influences on his sleeve but he takes exploitation pictures and genre movies and elevates them into films. It is somewhat pretentious to make that sort of distinction but it is hard to compare a summer blockbuster popcorn movie to awards season films with a straight face. There is merit to both and I love them both but they are different. Different, that is, to everyone but Tarantino who can blend the two into something amazing.
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s take on the Italian spaghetti western famous mostly for Sergio Leone’s films with Clint Eastwood but the particular inspiration for this film is, unsurprisingly, the Sergio Corbucci film Django starring Franco Nero about a gunfighter caught between the KKK and a Mexican gang. Along this line we are given over the top action with a lot of blood and a ton of violence. True to his exploitation roots, however, Tarantino also offers an unflinching look at racism and the horrors of slavery.
There are some people who look at this film and reflexively blanch at the brutality on display here and the abundant use of the N-word amongst other racist derogatory terms. Certainly if you are sensitive to this and cannot bear to hear it then this movie might be a bit harsh but I absolutely reject the notion that the use of these slurs and the brutality on display are excessive as slavery was a brutal and impersonal time. If you tell me that there is too much of the N-word in Pulp Fiction then you have an argument to make but here, at a time when human beings were treated like property and looked down upon as sub-human then it is very hard to argue that slave owners were more respectful than this. If you aren’t a racist piece of shit then, yes, it is difficult to hear and it is disturbing but that is kind of the point. You SHOULD be disturbed by what is going on in the movie. That is the point. Tarantino is not apologizing for slavery he is indicting it and does so by using it as a backdrop for this story.
That can be a sticky point for viewers as well as some may feel like using this type of material to tell a story that might seem frivolous is disrespectful but I feel like the movie was empowering for one thing and more effective at indicting racism than most other more ‘serious’ movies even hope to have done. I feel that when it is attached to material like this it becomes better able to reach people who might not go to a straight drama or message picture. Racism is not what the movie is about but it is the backdrop the movie occurs in front of and as such it allows Tarantino to get at the material sideways without ever feeling preachy.
Above and beyond the more serious themes at play, the film also functions as an incredibly satisfying revenge tale. This is helped along by the darkness the movie dips its toes into as it allows for some very meaty offenses to take revenge against. The flashbacks to whipping and torture are difficult to sit through but they add to the emotional context of what is happening on screen and if there was ever a justifiable reason for bloody retribution this is it. The morality of the movie is not hazy at all. It is clear cut between good guys and bad guys and as such it is easy to let go of moral compunctions against this sort of punishment. I am not for capital punishment in the real world but movies like this can be very cathartic. Like the Nazis in his last film, Tarantino has chosen an enemy that even pacifists can get behind violence against.
The performances in the movie are all pretty incredible starting with Jamie Foxx who works miracles with his physical acting and finds exactly the right note between visceral rage and emotional detachment for a character that is single minded in his mission but has more than one dimension. Christoph Waltz is again incredible as Schultz and delivers one of the most heart breaking moments of the film with a simple look and smile. He is quirky and deadly like his character in Inglourious Basterds but in a very different way. Leonardo DiCaprio is stunningly vile as Calvin Candie and would make a killing if smarm is something that could be bottled and sold for profit. He is a monster in every sense of the word but still has an enormous amount of charm and charisma. He finds the perfect balance here and gives us the best villain of the year. Samuel L Jackson is pretty amazing as well as Steven, Candie’s house servant who seems to hate his own race more than his masters do. If Uncle Ruckus from the Boondocks worked for a wealthy plantation owner he would be Steven.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
This is a movie of balance in terms of both tone as well as the performances. For it to be as hilariously funny as it is at times in the midst of very disturbing material while at the same time ultimately uplifting and satisfying is nothing short of a miracle and shows a real maturity in craft from Tarantino. He burst out of the gates with enormously strong material early in his career but over time his skills have refined and he is still doing great work. Every aspect of Django works and works well. The story is compelling and engaging. The action is exciting and well choreographed. The humor is very funny. The emotions feel real and the conflict and themes are challenging and disturbing. This movie does everything a movie is supposed to do. It moves the viewer and engages them and leaves them thinking and discussing. It is hard to watch at times because it needs to be. This is an important movie with important things to say while at the same time offering up thrills and laughs with a helping of tears. There are some tastes that this in not appropriate for and god help you if you let a child see it but for adults who are looking for a challenging and satisfying film, there was nothing better this year.