Saturday, January 12, 2013

Django Unchained Review

Django Unchained is incredibly violent, foul-mouthed, and shocking – all things that we’ve come to expect from Quentin Tarantino over his few-but-fantastic films.  Much ado was made over the material that this film covers, namely Southern slavery during the mid-19th century.  It was no secret that many roles in the script had revolving cast-changes; Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell both dropped out of the role that would go to Walton Goggins, and Will Smith turned down the lead because of the racist nature of the script.  I completely understand why these fine gentlemen turned down this film; it has already and will spark more controversy as the weeks go on.  While I enjoyed it quite a bit, Django is one of the hardest-to-watch films I’ve ever seen.

The second film in Tarantino’s impromptu trilogy about oppression and revenge (Inglourious Basterds having been the first), Django is set in the Southern United States in 1858.  Dr. King Schultz (played masterfully by Christoph Waltz) is a former dentist-turned-bounty hunter who is looking for the Brittle brothers.  He doesn’t know what these men look like so he purchases a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who would be able to identify them.  The two partner up (King makes it a point that Django is now a free man) for the winter, killing targets and collecting their bounties.  The majority of the film deals with Django’s quest to rescue his slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The film, on the whole, is fairly straight-forward; our duo kills myriad bounties for money or revenge.  What surprises and shocks about Django isn’t this simple story, but the incredibly violent acts depicted in the film.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m fairly desensitized to most violence (which is probably not for the best); two decades of violent games, television shows, movies, and YouTube clips have allowed me to see plenty of things that I probably shouldn’t have.  Django doesn’t necessarily feature the goriest sights I’ve seen (The Walking Dead probably holds that honor and that’s on network TV…), but most certainly some of the most uncomfortable and deplorable.  There were two moments in particular that were very, very rough.  Now, it’s important to understand that both scenes were integral to the story and serviced the plot well; they helped to establish the character of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in his first villainous role) and where his moral compass lands.

Candie owns and runs “Candieland;” a familial cotton plantation that’s been passed down through the generations.  Calvin operates the business with his head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, who is just sublime in this role), and specializes in “mandingo” fighting – gladiatorial-style death matches that pit slave against slave.  Upon first being introduced to Monsieur Candie (as he prefers to be called, yet can’t speak French), we’re shown two men battling it out, mid-fight.  The combat is incredibly brutal and literally bone-crunching.  This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen such brutal fighting, but in this circumstance, with Candie watching literally feet from the action, I was incredibly shocked and sickened.  Later, during the journey to Candieland, our caravan finds a runaway mandingo fighter of Candie’s.  After an incredibly tense dialogue between Django and Candie, Candie gives the order to sick a pack of dogs on the man; he is literally torn to pieces by the ravenous dogs.  Both acts are incredibly deplorable and visceral, yet serve to establish Calvin Candie as a despicable human being and a very clear antagonist to our duo.

It is within this utterly deplorable character that DiCaprio loses himself.  I absolutely love Leo in everything I’ve seen him in, and Django Unchained just very well may be one of his greatest performances.  He plays Candie with just enough Southern “charm” that we just absolutely love to hate him; he’s cordial and well-spoken, yet sends men to their deaths in his mandingo fights.  Leo is rivaled only by one other in this film: Christoph Waltz.

Waltz may not top his Hans Landa from Basterds, but he most certainly puts in one of the best performances of the year as the former dentist King Schultz.  I loved literally everything about his character; the bouncing tooth atop his carriage, his horses’ names, his accent, his eloquence when discussing the bounty-hunting business.  I understand that most of these examples are script-level, but Waltz brings incredible personality to the character that elevates it to another level.  Schultz is one of my favorite characters of the year, by far.

It must be difficult being the title character but not having the performance that everyone will be talking about, but the nature of the character of Django is inherently that much different than the aforementioned two.  Django is an analogy of Siegfried, a mythological German hero (that probably every high-school student learning German learned about, yours truly included), who is the quiet-hero type.  He goes through some trials and tribulations in search of “the girl” or “damsel in distress.”  Foxx is fantastic in the role, portraying an un-educated slave just off the plantation who becomes a well-spoken bounty hunter who has to adopt “characters” to fool their bounties.  This transformation may not be that realistic, considering the pair were together for only a few months, but Foxx does a great job with the role and deserves mention despite the non-showy nature of Django.

There are a few other performances that are worth mentioning.  Jonah Hill has a very small but incredibly memorable role as a member of a posse on their way to exact revenge on our heroes.  He’s hysterical in one of the funniest scenes that I’ve ever seen (comedies included) that involves KKK-inspired hoods and their poorly-cut eye-holes.  This scene alone makes me wish he had a larger role to play.  Props must be handed out to Don Johnson, who’s “Big Daddy” is a Colonel Sanders-lookalike-plantation-owner who happens to own the plantation where the Brittle brothers are working.  Much like Hill, Johnson’s role in the film is very small but incredibly memorable – can we just get a prequel spinoff film about these two characters?

The film’s narrative structure is a bit long-winded at times.  Actually, most of the time.  Django isn’t the longest film I’ve seen this year (we’re looking at you, Hobbit), but it felt very, very long.  This isn’t too much of a negative, but when certain scenes overstay their welcome it adds to the feeling of longetivity.  The examples of this that spring to mind are long traveling shots and scenes that are devoid of the snappy, witty Tarantino dialogue to move things along.  There’s one particular sequence of the main caravan arriving at Candieland that caused my one friend to quip, “well that was exhausting.”

Tarantino’s tendency to overindulge comes through in another key area of the film: the soundtrack.  The film’s score is as fantastic as one would expect from a western (or “southern” in this instance).  Unfortunately this was only for some of the film; contemporary songs, with lyrics, populated the rest of the soundtrack.  Frankly, I wish there would’ve been no lyrical music in the film at all, but Quentin disagreed with me.  Some of the musical choices suited the situation, but on the whole they were just overly distracting.  In the climactic final gun battle, a hip-hop song started blaring in my face.  In the moment, I was fine with it, but in retrospect it is probably the most glaring example of QT’s overindulgence.  Yes, most of the film is tongue-in-cheek but isn’t as self-aware of itself as to throw
in contemporary songs into a 19th century period-piece.  That scene would’ve been that much better had it been scored to an instrumental piece, perhaps something from one of the myriad “spaghetti westerns” that Tarantino is obviously paying homage to.

The good and the bad of the film thankfully don’t add up to “ugly.”  Django Unchained, in its entirety, is incredibly entertaining, visceral, and just fun to watch…if it’s not entirely historically accurate.  This is most certainly a “Tarantino” film as evidenced by the copious amounts of not-necessarily-realistic blood splatters, gratuitous violence, and incredibly witty and fast dialogue.  Fans of Quentin’s previous films will probably fall in love with Django despite its several detractors.  It may not eclipse Basterds, but it’ll certainly end up as one of my favorite films of the year.

Django Unchained fits very nicely into Tarantino’s stable of fantastic films, but is not without it’s flaws.

The Bearded Bullet.

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