"Django Unchained" is Tarantino Unleashed
"Django Unchained" is writer, director Quentin Tarantino’s revenge on the institution of slavery. It is a mish-mash of a film that bounces between comic book fantasy and slap stick. The story is a simple one. The slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by a bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), so that Django can identify three brothers with a price on their heads of which Dr. Schultz is intent on collecting. The two find their men and in the process develop a bond with Dr. Schultz agreeing to assist Django in rescuing his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
It is a simple tale that when the Tarantino touch is added runs to one hundred and sixty-five minutes. Mr. Tarantino’s film pays tribute to the western with an emphasis on spaghetti westerns. The opening credits transport us back fifty years. The movie is aided by music composed by the spaghetti western maestro himself Ennio Morricone ("The Good the Bad and the Ugly," "Once Upon a Time in the West") which does a nice job setting the mood. Mr. Tarantino uses a quick zoom which was popular and hasn’t been used (with the exception of Mr. Tarantino’s movies) since the early seventies when it was invented. But no matter what tweaks are used this is first and foremost a Tarantino movie.
A Tarantino movie is its own genre. "Django Unchained" is a new extension of that. It adds a bit of farce to a story that handled seriously would drain the emotions out of its audience. Instead we have no doubts about the outcome and can watch without putting too much emotional weight into any one character since this world of the old United States of America is a total fabrication of Mr. Tarantino’s imagination. It includes Mr. Tarantino’s stamp of parable-like dialogue, camouflaged intelligence in unlikely characters and buckets of bloodshed unrealistically splattered about. It is also a movie that takes its time going where it wants to go. Mr. Tarantino can afford to do that since his talent is creating imaginative scenes the likes of which we’ve never seen before; distracting us enough from realizing we’ve wondered off the narrative path.
Mr. Waltz’s Dr. Scholtz is a character ahead of his time. Seemingly without any preconceptions of blacks whether slave or free he makes Django his equal partner. Mr. Waltz’s bounty hunter is also remorseless- not a bad thing for his line of work treating the "alive" part of "dead or alive" as too much work. There is also an intelligence and sense of justice that attracts our sympathies. With Mr. Waltz every scene is a mystery. We know he will get out of the circumstances he has put himself in but how he does so is the surprise.
For the first half Mr. Waltz carries the movie. Mr. Foxx is hand cuffed (not literally) since his actions are limited being black in America when slavery was still fashionable. He has to control his emotions and takes a back seat to the Dr. Scholtz character which makes Django a less appealing character.
It is not until Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Broomhilda’s owner, enters the movie that it takes off. Portrayed by Mr. DiCaprio Candie is deliciously evil. Dressed in nineteenth century aristocratic attire with a long pointy goatee and long wavy hair Candie is the incarnation of the devil himself. Mr. DiCaprio adds pizzazz and charisma that makes this vile character alluring. It is one of the best performances in Mr. DiCaprio’s career.
When Dr. Scholtz finds out that Candie owns Broomhilda he devises a scam for traveling back to Candie’s plantation to free her. The cat and mouse between Dr. Scholtz and Candie is the first hook of drama the audience can grab on to. When they arrive at the plantation, Candyland, we meet the overseer, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Just when you think Candie is the reincarnation of evil Stephen brings a heavier dose of maliciousness minus the charm. Stephen is a quintessential Uncle Tom whose priorities are to himself and then to Candie’s plantation. Mr. Jackson’s performance is brilliant. He is a sly manipulator. In public he’s a limp, nosy, absent minded, pain in the derriere manager but behind closed doors with Candie he is cold and ruthless. His presence in a scene tightens the stomach and makes the hairs stand on guard. It is in this setting Dr. Scholtz and Django have to work surreptitiously to free his wife. It is worth getting to that point.
It is the tradition of most westerns that a gun battle settles the narrative. But as the movie reaches the climax and the confrontation erupts, Mr. Tarantino pulls us into farce. Just as a fire hydrant sprays water, blood is sprayed everywhere unfastening our sympathy for Django and his wife. Perhaps it is a tribute to Sam Peckinpah’s "The Wild Bunch" but the blood letting had a point in that film and even after five minutes we still cared for the characters. In "Django Unchained" the final battle doesn’t conclude the movie. Django is taken prisoner again and must once again come to the rescue even after our sympathies have been squandered. It is a tough task to rebuild interest again but at least Mr. Tarantino makes it entertaining.
It is a mish mash of a movie. We even get a pony show at the end as Django shows off for Broomhilda just as they used to finish a Will Rogers’ film during the golden age of movies. But the performance seems out of place in a film with this much red paint being splattered. But then again there is a little bit of everything in this movie with about half of it being gripping drama. The other half can stand on its own since its being held up by Mr. Tarantino’s writing.