Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Sammi Rotibi, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, James Russo, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Michael Bowen, Ted Neeley, James Parks, Tom Savini, Jamal Duff, Michael Parks, John Jarratt, Todd Allen, Michael Bacall, Ned Bellamy, Gary Grubbs, Glen Warner, Rex Linn, Lewis Smith, Misty Upham, Robert Carradine, Kimberley Drummond, Kasey James, Quentin Tarantino.
Unchained indeed. This Django flick – named after the titular character played by Franco Nero in the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film and dozens of late 60s/early 70s spaghetti westerns afterward – represents Tarantino Unchained: it’s the director’s longest, most indulgent, and gratuitously violent film yet. Considering his previous features, that’s saying something.
But Django Unchained isn’t just an exercise in empty style; with its premise of the titular freed slave (played by Jamie Foxx) taking revenge on the white man in the pre-civil war South, the film doesn’t have to try hard to be provocative. Tarantino pulls no punches, though: despite the exploitation-level premise, the era and subject matter are depicted with the stark brutality of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Mixing humor (early scenes of townsfolk reacting to Django’s presence recall Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), horror (an attempted runaway is viciously torn apart by a pack of dogs in a scene that is made all the more terrifying for its restraint), and exploitation elements (“mandingo fighting” is a direct reference to the Richard Fleischer’s exploitation classic Mandingo), Django dives into a rarely-explored topic with no holds barred. Most revealing: Django’s interactions with other slaves, especially an Uncle Tom character played by Samuel L. Jackson.
In the film’s dynamite credit sequence, set to Luis Bacalov’s evocative theme (originally composed for the 1966 film), we see a line of shackled slaves being marched barefoot throughout the South. In the middle of the night, a creaky horse-drawn wagon with a giant tooth on a coil bobbing back and forth at the top rides up. “I am doctor King Schultz,” begins Christoph Waltz, with the elaborate grasp of the language that won him an Oscar in Tarantino’s previous film, Inglorious Basterds, “and this is my horse, Fritz.” The horse whinnies on cue.
The plot of the 165-minute feature is established right from the opening scenes, as Schultz, a German bounty hunter operating in the Southwest, “recruits” Django to help him track down the Brittle Brothers, a trio of slave handlers whom Django can identify. In return, Schultz will assist Django in locating his wife, who was separated from Django and sold to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The first half of the film is a sprawling, ambitious, slightly unfocused, but exhilarating ride that exudes a pure love for filmmaking and (especially) spaghetti (with repurposed music by Ennio Morricone) and revisionist Westerns (the “cold mud” look of the film recalls Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, among other films) as we get to know Schultz and Django.
During the film’s second half, however, the film slows down to what some viewers may feel is a slow crawl as the pair enter “Candieland” in search of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). But this is where I feel Django excels: the slow-burn scenes at Candieland are wonderfully intense, recalling some of the director’s best work in Basterds (the opening sequence with Waltz and the failed tavern infiltration with Michael Fassbender).
The majority of the feature isn’t over-the-top violent – aside from the odd gunshot, which (a la Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) delights in employing traditional squib work, as opposed to the artificial CGI splatter that pervades contemporary film. The climax, however, features the kind of all-out bloodbath that bests even the finale of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (that film needed to turn to black & white to get away with the gore; Django somehow manages an R rating unscathed).
A lot has been made of the violence here – and in the director’s other films – and Tarantino does himself no favors by snapping at interviewers (he’s discussed violence in cinema much more intelligently over the years – but those clips don’t get the same attention). But make no mistake: this isn’t a celebration of blood, but an immensely subversive piece of work that (like Basterds) that questions our level of acceptance of violence (violence against sympathetic characters is shied away from; against the villains, it’s glorified).
Unlike a typical revenge film, Django (via Tarantino) is not out for justice against a single villain (though the film could have easily taken that route) but the entire system of slavery and its participants (white or black). Key point: as Django exacts revenge on the Brittle brothers early in the film, his lust (and ours) is unsated. By the final bloodbath, has justice been served? Have we been entertained?
Foxx’s Django is, perhaps, the most fully-developed character Tarantino has had to work with. A stock role imbibed it with a wholly new characterization, this Django is has a full-blown arc from shackled slave to expert gunslinger and freer of his people. Foxx does some excellent, mostly low-key work here: with minimal dialogue, Django’s journey is worn on his face.
The showy role belongs to Waltz, so memorable as Hans Landa in Tarantino’s previous film, Inglorious Basterds. The performance is roughly similar, but King Schultz is an infinitely more sympathetic character whose third-act retribution is particularly satisfying. This is one of the most enjoyable performances of the year – I could listen to Waltz articulate for another three hours.
Technical credits are outstanding. Cinematography by Tarantino vet Robert Richardson gives the film an appropriately gritty, grimy feel throughout a number of diverse Southern US locations. The soundtrack – which always plays an important role in the director’s work – ranges from classic spaghetti western twangs to anachronistic (but strangely appropriate) hip hop.
Perhaps the director’s most provocative and controversial film to date, the violence and subject matter in Django Unchained may split audiences. But the film is also a dynamite piece of pop entertainment that wears the love for its genre on its sleeve. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.
Also opening this week: