Movie Review: Django Unchained
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Quentin Tarantino jumps back in his cinematic time-traveling machine and retreats to the past to rewrite history and exact some bloody revenge in his over-the-top epic “Django Unchained.”
After giving Jewish soldiers the chance to hunt down Nazis and kill Hitler in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino keeps his wish-fulfillment stateside with a blaxploitation-Spaghetti Western mash-up that takes its name from director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 western “Django.” Tarantino even trots original “Django” star Franco Nero out for a tongue-in-cheek cameo.
The film flies in the face of Hollywood conventions regarding the portrayal of slavery, graphically depicting the brutality of America’s shameful past in harrowing detail. As he has done so often in the past, Tarantino disarms the audience with humor and hypnotizes them with mesmerizing dialogue before launching a full-front assault, as bullets fly and blood spatters across the screen in Pollock-esque flourishes.
The unhinged exploration of the Old South features more uses of the “n” word than any movie in recent memory — more than 100 by some published accounts. That excess will lead to discomfort with some audiences but also honestly represents the way in which slaves were treated as sub-humans. The use of the word, which has gotten Tarantino into trouble in the past, might seem objectionable to some, but the movie has found allies in possibly unexpected places. The NAACP recently nominated the film and two of its stars for the group’s annual Image Awards.
One of those nominees is Jamie Foxx, who stars as a slave in 1858 who gets the chance to punish his former masters and heroically save his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a life of enslavement. The key to Django’s salvation and redemption comes from the debonair German immigrant Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who poses as a dentist.
Waltz earned an Oscar for his role in “Inglourious Basterds,” and I was fearful that Schultz might simply be a reprisal. But he assuaged any concerns of typecasting almost immediately. A dandy didactic with no qualms of killing, the garrulous mustache-twirler comes across Django and a group of slaves being marched through the woods. He is searching for the Brittle brothers, former employees of Django’s previous master. In order to procure Django’s help, he quickly disposes of Django’s current masters and liberates the group of slaves.
Schultz is an enlightened man, but he’s on a mission determined to “make this slavery malarkey” work to his benefit for the time being. He and Django form a pact: If the slave will help him find the Brittle brothers, Schultz will help Django retrieve his wife from a plantation in Mississippi.
After outfitting Django in princely garb that echoes both Little Lord Fauntleroy and proto-pimp gear, the two set off on horseback to the sound of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” through prairies and snow-capped mountains as Schultz teaches Django the ways of the bounty hunter. The sight of a black man on horseback serving as sidekick and not slave draws unwanted attention and antagonism, leading to one of the most hilarious moments of the film. A group of KKK members gather to trap the pair, but this gang that can’t shoot straight wrestles with the sacks on their heads, unable to align their eye-holes. It is a scene that will likely make Mel Brooks beam with pride.
After dispatching of the Brittles, the two arrive at Candyland, the plantation owned by amateur phrenologist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the man who owns Django’s wife. The would-be Francophile who can’t speak French is a classic Tarantino (and western) menace, with his yellowed teeth, perpetual cigarette and wide-eyed violent outbursts. DiCaprio lets loose here, playing the part with frothy relish. But the cartoonish nature of the scene comes to a startling halt as we watch the sociopathic plantation owner preside over savage fistfights between two muscle-bound Mandingos.
The sequence is a great bait-and-switch, as the audience moves from chuckling at Candie’s absurd presence to being chastened by atrocities rarely seen in filmic slave narratives.
Schultz and Django create a ruse to gain access to Candie’s estate so they can search for Broomhilda, with Django slowly taking control of the situation and posing as a fearless slave-trader. As they get close to absconding from Candyland with Broomhilda, the pair’s plan falls apart thanks to the concerted efforts of Candie’s African-American confidante, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). In a role that winks at and then wipes any trace of the soft-shoe and smile affectation from the stereotype of subservient house-slave, Jackson brings a devil-eyed menace to Stephen. His diabolical Uncle Tom character becomes the movie’s most terrifying bad guy but also a character of bizarre sympathy, as one marvels at the perversity of slavery to turn a man against his own people.
With their initial plan reduced to ashes, Django regroups himself and sets out on a glorious and grotesque effort of retaliation. The sequence features massive amounts of blood but also an Old West saloon-style shoot-out campiness that manages to keep the violence at a slight remove.
Over the course of his quest, Foxx takes Django from a head-hung and near-defeated mumbling slave to a swaggering, quick-mouthed hero. It is an absurd, overly-long, unsettling and hilarious journey which only Tarantino could be capable of masterminding.