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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Django Unchained (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson

If there's any one thing you can say about Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker, it's that he always seems to be having a good time making his films, and that his joy in making a film becomes the joy of the audience in watching it. I have never seen a Tarantino movie that didn't leave me thoroughly entertained and Django Unchained is no exception. Forget about the manufactured controversy surrounding its subject matter. This is a film very much worth seeing.

Django Unchained begins with its eponymous hero (played by Jamie Foxx) being freed from bondage by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist who now works as a bounty hunter. Schultz has been looking for Django in particular because Django can identify the Brittle brothers, outlaws who would bring a hefty price if captured dead or alive. Django agrees to help Schultz find the brothers in exchange for his freedom and $75, as well as for the pleasure of visiting retribution on the men who once brutalized him and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). When the deed is done, Schultz, touched by what Django's story and concerned for his safety should he ride off into Mississippi on his own to rescue his wife, offers Django a new deal: enter into partnership with him for the winter and then, come spring, the two of them will find Broomhilda and get her to safety.

When they finally get to Mississippi, they learn that Broomhilda is now a slave of Candieland, a notorious plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Pretending that his object is to procure a slave for use in "mandingo fighting," a favourite pastime of Candie's, Schultz gains an audience with the plantation owner and an invitation to Candieland with Django, posing as an "advisor" on the subject of fighters. On their arrival Schultz is shocked by the treatment of slaves - in particular, one who is torn apart by dogs as punishment for trying to run away - but Django plays it cool, staying in character and waiting anxiously for a glimpse of Broomhilda. He finally gets it and Candie seems poised to let Schultz make an offer for her in addition to one of his fighters, but Candie's head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), suspects that Candie is being played and tips him off, leading to what Tarantino does best: a bold, bloody finale.

Django has come under fire for its treatment of race and slavery with the criticism focused primarily on two points. One is the frequency with which Tarantino makes use of the n-word which... if you're going to argue that it's used too frequently to have been accurate, I invite you to take a look at twitter any time Obama does something unpopular and then reflect on how often the word would have been thrown around back when it was considered a socially acceptable one. The second is Tarantino's juxtaposition of the horrors of slavery and comic elements often centering on slavers. Yes, Tarantino mixes comedy and drama in this film, as he does in every other film he's ever made, but to say that he doesn't take the subject of slavery seriously is to ignore the evidence on the screen. Slavery is consistently depicted as an evil institution full of brutality and horror, from the slave being torn apart by dogs, to the sexual slavery of women, to the sadism of the overseers who mete out punishment to the slaves. The comedy is not at the expense of the slave characters, or their suffering; it's at the expense of the slavers, who are depicted as clowns. In doing so, Tarantino reduces their values to something that shouldn't be respected, emulated or revered - that may sound obvious, but the world is full of idiots.

Controvery aside, Django is a strong, if not perfect, effort from the writer/director. The story unfolds in a more straight forward, less episodic way than his previous films and while it isn't quite as tight as it could be (which may have something to do with the fact that Sally Menke, the editor of all his previous films, passed away in 2010), I wouldn't go so far as to call it self-indulgent (though it comes very close during the final third). The violence on display is high, as it always is, but Tarantino brings a level of artistry to the violence that not all directors are able to meet. For example, the shot in which one of the Brittle brothers is killed and his blood spatters over unpicked cotton is as beautiful as it is gruesome and the Candieland shootout has a certain operatic sweep to it even as the level of bloodshed begins to inch towards the absurd.

Tarantino is a strong director because he understands what makes a movie tick and assembles the pieces perfectly, which includes a knack for casting the right actor in the right part. Foxx, playing a role that was originally written for Will Smith (which seems unbelievable now, having seen the finished product), equips himself well, finding a balance between cool and intense, and conveying a real sense of Django's love for his wife. One of the weaknesses of the film, however, is that despite being the title character, Django doesn't really get the same level of character development as Schultz, who very nearly walks off with the film due in large part to Waltz's fantastic performace. Schultz begins the film as a man who doesn't believe in the legitimacy of slavery as an institution, and ends it so horrified and disgusted by it that he's willing to lay down his life not to rescue a slave, but simply to get one up on a man he finds particularly abhorrent. The moment when Schultz makes this decision - when he effectively decides that whatever the cost, he just can't let that man take another breath - is one of the very best in the film. It's in fact one of the best moments of any film all year.

In supporting roles DiCaprio and Jackson make a huge impression, portraying a pair of truly despicable characters - one because he feels entitled to be, the other because he's adopted it as a survival strategy. Though they depict a master and a slave, the relationship between the two men is more complex than that simple description, with Stephen having a level of influence over Candie that suggests that he's the real brains behind the Candieland operation, the true power behind the throne of a flamboyant but intellectually shallow ruler. The depiction of Stephen as an Uncle Tom figure has been criticized but, again, I think that criticism is undercut by the evidence on screen, particularly in Stephen's final scene with Django, when he drops the pretense and shows that he's in on the joke and has been playing a role, just as Django was when he first came to Candieland. Django Unchained doesn't glory in or endorse racist stereotypes; instead it reduces them to the absurdities that they are.

While it can't be called a flawless film, Django Unchained soars high and definitely gives you your money's worth, both on the level of pure entertainment, and on the level of artistic merit. And, as usual, Tarantino leaves you eagerly anticipating what he'll come out with next. Personally, I can't wait.


Candice Frederick said...

woohoo! i loved it too :)

Zack Mandell said...

I haven't seen it yet but I super excited with all of the greatmovie reviews like this one.