Movie Review: Django Unchained

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The “D” might be silent, but that’s about the only thing that goes unsaid in Django Unchained.

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film follows his typical formula, putting together a witty script, dynamic characters and a few hundred gallons of fake blood to create his second historical fiction piece.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz of Inglourious Basterds fame) is a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in hopes that he will help him find the Brittle brothers, wanted criminals with a fine price on their heads. The first portion of the movie is the hunt for the brothers — and the chaos that ensues when Django shows up on horseback in towns like Daughtery, Texas. The deal Schultz and Django make soon evolves to include finding and freeing Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by the mandingo-fight-loving Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first non-starring role since Titanic). 

Of course, the main star of the show is the man behind both the typewriter and the camera. As with any Tarantino film, the script is phenomenal, the cinematography is fresh and the blood flows like someone shot up a cherry syrup factory. Although the amount of carnage in Django is par for the course, what separates it from other Tarantino films such as Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds is that most of the gore isn’t meant to be funny. The film’s focus on slave culture means that the violence against African Americans is disturbing to both the audience and a few of the characters (Schultz is haunted by the image of a man being torn apart by dogs). On the other hand, the revenge violence committed against the Brittle brothers and Candie’s friends is both humorous and cathartic.

As big as the blood is, the littlest aspects of the film contribute to Djangos power. The subtly worn path to the “hot box” torture device in Candy Land’s front yard, Schultz’s horse’s little bows and Candie’s yellowed teeth (presumably from his constant candy-munching) show that nothing is unplanned. This puts what could be seen as a high-rent shoot-’em-up into a piece of pre-meditated art on par with other big films this year. It also shows that the director, despite phenomenal success with his other films, is not about to slack off.

In fact, he continues to play off his love for old-style cinema by paying homage to the spaghetti westerns of the ’60s. Not only does he use title music from and naming the main character after Sergio Corbucci’s Django, but he also refers to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with a pre-KKK mob stampede and gives a nod to Mel Brooks’ spoof Blazing Saddles with a scene that makes audiences roar with laughter at the incoherence and pettiness of a racist mob (“Did anyone bring an extra bag?” “I can’t see out of this thing!”)

Django‘s performances have been seriously overlooked by the Academy this year. Waltz (up for a Best Supporting Actor award, and rightly so) gives us just as dynamic a performance as he did in Inglourious Basterds, but instead of playing a charming Nazi you want to hate but can’t stop watching, he plays a hero with little mannerisms, such as tweaking his mustache — again, in a film as epic as Django, the little things catch attention. Foxx is tremendously underrated, disappearing into his character just as he did in films such as Ray and The Soloist. It’s not Foxx using a snowman for target practice; it’s Django. Samuel L. Jackson is almost unrecognizable — except for the way he says “motherf*****” — as Stephen, Candie’s head house slave who could be seen as even more devious than his master. Washington plays horror well, but didn’t have much more to do (her character is absent for most of the film), and cameos from Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story), Jonah Hill (Moneyball) and Tarantino himself spice up the already chipotle-flavored film.

But the real talk of the plantation should be DiCaprio, who, snubbed by the Academy again, deserves a lot of credit for playing such a despicable character without creating a caricature. Like Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Candie is a charming man you love to watch but hate yourself for doing so. Right down to the ivory cigarette holder and plate of white cake, he embodies a character unlike any he has ever played and sports a perfect southern accent (is there any accent he can’t do?). Perhaps DiCaprio needs to take a break from Martin Scorcese and join forces with Tarantino more often.

Django is both routine and odd for Tarantino. It’s got the usual controversy surrounding it, but who would want to see a Tarantino film that didn’t make people cry foul? But unlike his other pieces, Django makes the viewer not only question why they’re laughing but also examine why they’re not laughing. Cheer for Django when he shoots twenty men dead in explosive carnage, but watch another man rip the eyes out of another at the urging of his master (yes, that does happen), and you’re shielding your eyes.

Lately Tarantino has gotten a lot of flack for his belief that his films have nothing to do with our ultra-violent culture, and although I don’t entirely agree that our bloody pop culture is independent of our desensitized behavior, I think he has a point. The violence in Django is not quick and clean. It makes you gasp, wince and feel your stomach turn over. Yes, the situations make many killings funny — for example, Schultz’s murder of Django’s captors in the opening scene is unexpected, thus hilarious — but a normal moviegoer isn’t laughing at how the guy’s head blew straight off his neck. If anything, the killing in Django is accurate, showing the bloody consequences of violence. It’s a lot better than films that show masses of people getting shot but leave out the pulpy, gutsy results. Unlike the ultra-graphic violence of Django, those films make killing look like good, clean fun. Just the blood on the collar of Django’s coat reminds you that shooting someone down is messy business.

The verdict: Django Unchained is classic Tarantino that will delight any fan and captivate any newbies to the director. It’s not for the weak of heart, however; gore, uncomfortable laughs, the use of the N-word and intense violence riddle the film to make some uncomfortable and others nauseated. But as I’ve always said, you never know if you don’t try it. And Django is definitely something to try, as long as you can stomach it.

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